By B.C. Manion
They donned fluorescent vests and stretched out across the natural preserve, focused on the task at hand.
Two were mounted on horseback. Another pair rode in a 4-wheel drive motorized scooter.
The search party stepped its way carefully through the woods, scanning the landscape, looking for any clue that might help them find the two “missing diabetic toddlers.”
They were mindful of gopher tortoise holes in the dense underbrush. They stepped around the weeds that often shot up over their heads. They peered beneath trees and bushes.
It didn’t take them long to find the first “child,” who was lying under a tree.
The second one was found a few minutes later, on the north side of the expansive property.
Searchers cheered at their success — but this was only an exercise, led by Bob Siwik, to help Keystone and Odessa residents learn how citizens can help when a real disaster strikes.
“Nowadays disaster planning is important,” said Siwik, who has written an emergency operations plan for the Keystone Civic Association. “You don’t have to be living under a rock to know that disasters like those in Japan could happen anywhere.”
Naturally, people’s first instinct is to tend to their own families, but if they’re not in the middle of the disaster themselves, they may be able to help others, Siwik said. That’s why the Keystone Civic Association decided to set up an emergency operations team.
“Given the physical nature of the landscape of Keystone, we have to have some way to respond to neighbors quickly,” said Tom Aderhold, president of the Keystone Civic Association.
“We have 56 lakes and 32 square miles to cover. A lot of wooded area,” Aderhold said.
Saturday’s training exercise was on Patterson Road, at the Brooker Creek Buffer Preserve.
It was the group’s first trial run.
Steve Morris, a member of the civic association’s board, said it was a good idea to do the mock exercise.
“What better way to find out what would happen if the real thing happened?” Morris said.
It gives the group a chance to figure out the logistics, identify people who would be willing to help and learn from experience.
“I think this is going to be one of these things that will evolve,” Morris said. Perhaps to be more effective, the volunteers will sign up to become part of a pool that would receive more advanced training — so they’ll be more effective if a true emergency arises, Morris said.
Although it was only a drill, organizers had thought of just about everything.
They had gathered equipment and personnel they might need during a real emergency. They had an RV for a command post. They had a first aid tent. They had water, insect spray and sunscreen. They had a food tent, with sandwiches, tangerines, boiled peanuts, chips and brownies.
They had equipment including radios, a whistle, an aerial map, a rope, an axe, a shovel and a fire extinguisher.
They had a mounted rescue team, a motorized scooter, a fire truck standing by and a helicopter that circled overhead.
The rescue party conducted a grid search.
“We’ve got nine grids,’’ Siwik said, with a team assigned to each. “We’re going to start and stop, mostly by visual signals. If that doesn’t work, we’ll use a whistle,” Siwik told the search party. “One whistle means stop and two whistles means go.
“Move slowly, cautiously,” he instructed. “I don’t want you going into any heavily vegetated areas. We haven’t seen any snakes, but you never know. We haven’t seen any insect hives, but you never know.”
As they walked, the teams were told to remain in a straight line, stretching across the wide expanse. Keeping visual contact is important, to ensure the safety of the rescue team and to keep the lines of communication open, Siwik said.
“We want to keep the line intact,” Siwik said. “You don’t want to get out of sync.”
Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Capt. Andy Ross said keeping the search organized is critical.
“Zone integrity and team integrity are vital,” he said. The search commander is counting on people to stay on their team, searching their assigned zone.
“If you switch teams, it seems insignificant to you. To the incident commander, it’s a big deal. It’s not just you that’s done that, there’s six other people who did that, too, and now you have a team that’s falling apart.”
It’s also important to concentrate on your assigned zone, he said. “Stay in your zone,” he said. Otherwise, there’s a chance that a search that organizers thought was being searched will be overlooked.
It’s also important to be thorough, Ross said.
“Forget about looking for the children,” he said. “Pretend you are looking for a paper clip. What is just as important to find is evidence of where they have been.”
Searchers must be mindful of any clue that might help: Tire tracks. Disturbed grass. A piece of clothing. Footprints.
It may seem insignificant to the search team, but could yield vital information, Ross said.
Kelley Rexroad, of Odessa, was there documenting the event through photos.
“We believe in neighbors taking care of neighbors and that is what this is really about,” the volunteer said.
Mike Jackson, an emergency expert from Sun City Center, was there to observe the event and to offer feedback. He said the exercise generally went well.
However, he did note that the team rescuing the first child should have consulted with emergency personnel before moving the child.
That’s important because the child could have been injured, and emergency personnel need to assess whether a stretcher or other precautions are needed before the patient is moved, Jackson said.
Siwik said an assessment will be made to determine what went well and what can be improved.
He said the group also hopes to recruit more volunteers and could use some more radios.
Overall, though, he was pleased by the turnout, which exceeded 60 participants, including emergency personnel, members of the American Legion, Boy Scouts, a doctor, nurses and civic association members.
“We have already succeeded,” he told the crowd, “by each and every one of you being here today.”
The sheriff’s department’s Ross also applauded the residents for being so willing to help.
“I’m impressed that so many people would come out,” Ross said. “It really shows a lot of community cohesion.”
If you are interested in getting involved or would like more information, call Siwik at (813) 926-8378.
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