NORMAL — As a boy, Larry Brink roamed the rain-soaked ground for night owls with his dad after dark.
But he never expected to use those same skills as a volunteer with the McLean County Ground Search and Rescue Team.
The county team searched for evidence Saturday morning around the Fairview Park football field in Normal.
sergeant. Scott Watson, son of former Normal Fire Department Chief Jim Watson, is the team leader. He refers to the team members as “pounders on the ground”.
For Saturday’s practice, he said 58 clear plastic utensils were placed in the ground Friday morning for team members to find.
With wintry temperatures hovering around 20 degrees, the team headed out at 8 a.m. Saturday to the frosty grass fields north of Fairview Park to find their ‘clues’, or plastic forks, spoons and knives transparent. Many were frozen after a day out in the elements.
The searchers planned their route and formed a line to sweep the field well. Watson explained that they prepare team members to train their eyes to spot things that blend well with their surroundings.
“We’re basically trying to look for evidence pretty hard,” Watson said, adding that they needed to reinforce their senses.
“It’s just repetitive training and learning to look for what you’re looking for,” he said. Team members can also take those same skills home and help their kids find things in a messy room.
But when called to a stage, Watson said they could “look for anything and everything” that the average person might not think to look for.
During the warmer months for other exercises, Watson added that her daughter had volunteered as a “trail kid”, who hid in the woods for the team to search for her. In addition, his wife helps coordinate the team via email.
Watson said their research methods vary depending on the terrain, environment and pace requested by the investigative agency.
He also said they never know what they would expect to find when searching for evidence. Quirky clothes, from socks to underwear, and assorted bone pieces were all chosen. Watson said he once found a complete adult deer skull, complete with antlers.
Volunteer Gaby Bontea acted as team leader for Saturday’s exercise. She asked the team to scan a full 360 degree survey around them, as well as above and below them.
Bontea would then call on the others to declare if they were ready to advance another three or six steps. As a former member of the Air Force and Army, she said she got involved with the team because she loves being outdoors.
While Saturday’s exercise equipment included party tableware, the team also practiced searching for playing cards, ammunition casings and fake blood traces.
Watson said their team members come from all walks of life. He volunteers with the Carlock Fire Protection District, and they have other members who respond with the Lexington and Heyworth Fire Departments.
Cathy Beck, acting director of the McLean County Emergency Management Agency, said her office contacts members of the ground search party when needed. She added that they were looking for more volunteers to join.
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Watson said the invitation is open to anyone. He said they will be trained with an eight-hour basic land navigation course, followed by a 16-hour ground search and rescue course. The latter includes daytime and nighttime conditions.
Watson said they weren’t in high demand in the Twin Cities. But they also come out to help investigations in other parts of central Illinois.
Brink is nicknamed “Eagle Eyes” by his teammates, a term dutifully earned due to his razor-sharp perception abilities. He spotted several utensils on Saturday several meters away.
While training in Tazewell County, Brink said he once spotted a small map placed in the hollow of a tree 20 or 30 yards away.
He said he tried to answer every call that came out and was grateful to his understanding boss. He said he joined the team with a friend of his, adding that he also enjoys being outside.
“It’s just a way to help the community,” Brink said. “I wanted to be a firefighter, but I have bad back so I can’t do that.”
By the end of the training session, at least 50 of the 58 disposable cutlery had been located by the team. In an after-action meeting, the consensus of the team was that they had done a good job.
“We’re just honing our skills every time we go out to do something like that,” Watson said.
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Contact Brendan Denison at (309) 820-3238. Follow Brendan Denison on Twitter: @BrendanDenison