Acting Snr Sgt Scott Dower and Sgt Mark Braun practise drills at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Acting Snr Sgt Scott Dower and Sgt Mark Braun practise drills at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

Inside the elite search and rescue cops ready for anything

Fully submerged under water, vision just centimetres ahead, walking along the bottom of a murky river or the wild ocean.

Searching for a weapon, a car - sometimes a body.

It's not an easy task, but it's one Victoria Police's Search and Rescue division are often faced with.

An elite crew of just 20 members statewide, the team tackle everything from missing bushwalkers, to hikers dangling from cliffs, snow rescues, plane wrecks and just about anything in between.

Poised for anything and with years of vigorous training, these are the guys you would want to come looking for you.

Those who make the cut are put through a 14-week training camp to equip them as commercial divers, rock climbers and navigators and familiarise them with all terrains, in all conditions.

 

Victoria Police Search & Rescue Squad member Senior Constable Joel Magno-Thornton goes through an underwater drill at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Victoria Police Search & Rescue Squad member Senior Constable Joel Magno-Thornton goes through an underwater drill at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

 

As a Senior Sergeant, there isn't much Greg Paul hasn't seen in his time with the specialist crew.

"It could be a dead body, a sunken boat, a car dumped in the river … we've got the ski patrols that do a fantastic job in ski resort areas but the vast area of the state is outside the boundaries of the ski resorts - and who looks after that?" he says.

"Vertical rescues, down mineshafts, up cliffs and diving - anything from salvaging a plane wreck … drowned persons, cars, stolen property.

"And of course co-ordinating searches for missing people.

"A lot of these jobs are resolved by the local police … but when it gets beyond their capability, when it escalates to be a large scale job and there's a lot of others involved, it requires a specialist unit."

A number of factors come into play when an incident becomes a Search and Rescue job but it's the time when deciding which job needs specialist help that can be critical.

"It's not a definitive answer there. It's a combination of the scale and also the urgency of," Snr Srg Paul said.

"Think of yourself when you lose your set of keys or your phone - you're going to go and do the obvious first.

"You're going to the bedside table, you're going to retrace your steps … with us, we would like to think that unless it's time critical the local resources are going to do those basic things.

"[But] let's say it's now a child with autism that's walked away from their family and there's water in the area and so forth - that would require an urgent response.

"It's a measure we put in there, urgency assessment - [and] usually you get a pretty good inkling straight away without thinking too hard."

There's a huge aspect of co-ordination in search and rescue operations.

 

Sgt Mark Braun and Senior Constable Joel Magno-Thornton. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Sgt Mark Braun and Senior Constable Joel Magno-Thornton. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

 

From volunteer agencies such as the SES or CFA, to locals, searchers on the ground and controllers in the office.

The team have just finished one of their busiest periods - winter.

Snow rescues and missing people are rife during the cooler months and the drop in temperature makes their response time critical.

"If someone goes missing in the high country it's time critical.

"If it's a blizzard, if they're poorly equip and they don't know the area, they're on their own or have health issues then we more likely need to respond to that quicker than if it was in March or November.

It's a similar story during the summer months as a day trip to the beach can soon turn deadly for tourists and ocean-dwellers.

Recently, the team have been kept busy with snow and bush searches for missing people.

In August, an experienced skier was seriously injured in a fall at Mount Bogong.

Members from search and rescue were called in to manoeuvre through dense bushland and snow in an intricate 12-hour operation.

Sadly, the man, named as prominent scientist and father of two Dr David Blair, died the following morning.

 

Senior Constable Joel Magno-Thornton at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Senior Constable Joel Magno-Thornton at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

 

And in July, officers were involved in an extensive search for beloved husband Conrad Whitlock, 72, who left his bed in the early hours one morning, drove to Mount Buller and hasn't returned.

These are the cases that stick with Snr Srg Paul.

"The ones that are the worst are the ones where we don't get a result … the ones where you don't find them.

"When we find them and they're deceased that's also tragic - it's really sad and tragic - but at least it's a result.

"You haven't got the family not knowing … that's the most terrible thing for a family to go through.

 

Acting Snr Sgt Scott Dower and Sgt Mark Braun practise drills at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
Acting Snr Sgt Scott Dower and Sgt Mark Braun practise drills at Williamstown. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

 

'IT'S REALLY A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH'

Bright Senior Sergeant Doug Incoll is as experienced as they come.

He's responsible for roughly 5000sq km of countryside and Commander of the Alpine Cluster - which includes everywhere from Myrtleford to the ski fields and between.

And although he isn't part of a specialist team, the locality of his station means he and his team have to be ready for anything.

"It's a whole mixed basket," Snr Sgt Incoll says.

"I think in Bright there is only 4 weeks where something isn't on.

"Your usual day to day business is no different [to city officers] - domestics, driving behaviour, those general things are exactly as the same as up here."

"But up here the difference is the environment that we work in.

"The main difference is the time criticality."

"That really ups the ante - it's really a matter of life or death.

Snr Sgr Incoll said months of pre-planning goes into the lead up to snow season to ensure the safety of both visitors and members.

During the ski season, Mt Buller, Mt Hotham and Falls Creek have officers on duty 24/7.

He described the conditions as "equitable with the worst conditions in the world"

 

The search and rescue squad go above and beyond to keep people safe. Picture: Andrew Henshaw
The search and rescue squad go above and beyond to keep people safe. Picture: Andrew Henshaw

 

"We had terrible blizzards at Mt Bogong a few years ago … we've had a boy with autism that went missing …

"You get the weather down to zero and it can set in quickly.

"Several times you have people that are a bit inebriated walking home who have never been there before.

"But the difference is up there if someone walking around it's not like you're in Brunswick and can just sleep in a laneway.

"We had an example where at 1am [a man had] been at a lodge or out drinking and on the way home he's just fallen over in the snow … one of the searchers just tripped over him.

"It's something we need to really police.

And with the onus often falling on officers from the local divisions, Snr Sgt Incoll said their dedication and ability to adapt to any situation is something special.

"It's really heartening though - the police members just go above and beyond to maintain and to keep people safe in the snow.

"They do put their lives - they certainly go above and beyond.

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Heading into summer, the focus now turns to water safety, bushfires and extreme heat.

There were a record 40 drowning deaths in Victoria in the 2017/18 period - the highest number in 20 years - statistics from Life Saving Victoria show.

And more than half of those drownings happened between December 2017 and February 2018.

Officers at Search and Rescue, and those in areas like Snr Sgt Incoll, will now be faced with keeping communities safe around water and inevitably racing against the clock to get to those in trouble before it's too late.

alanah.frost@news.com.au



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