Searches such as one for Jessica Stacks benefit from state-of-the-art technology

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Part of the recent night water search for missing woman Jessica Stacks
January 24th, 2021     Featured News General News

 

The case of Jessica Stacks, reported missing in the Tallahatchie River bottom near Enterprise Jan. 1, has brought focus on the extensive efforts to find her.

Searchers have had more state-of-the-art technology tools at their disposal than ever before.

Prior to 2006, when a search was needed for a missing person, officials gathered a group and sent them out in as orderly a fashion as possible, hoping for good luck. About the only means of communication and coordination was a radio system that was not always reliable in many parts of the county.

That began to change when Curt Clayton, now Union County Emergency Management Director, wanted to start a formal search and rescue team.

“We had a drowning with two kids in the Tallahatchie River,” he said.

Tommy Wilhite was sheriff and Clayton said Wilhite would give his blessing if the team would be responsible for both land and water searches and rescues. Clayton agreed.

Search and rescue team beginning

Union County Emergency Management Director Curt Clayton with a search drone.

A team was formed and began to accumulate equipment, and training. A state Emergency Management Agency grant helped with a command trailer in 2010.

The 9/11 attacks led to the ascension of the Homeland Security office and Hurricane Katrina further emphasized needs and shortcomings in rescue operations generally.

The result was a flow of money to local jurisdictions, Union County included.

A wide array of equipment has come at no direct cost to local taxpayers.

Today, when Sheriff Jimmy Edwards needs to mount a search, there are both search and rescue teams and task forces available.

The teams available

“We have a 25-member team,” Clayton said. “They are some sheriff’s deputies, some volunteer fire department members and some New Albany Fire Department.” All are unpaid volunteers.

The task force, for a major search, includes about 250 trained in regular rescue, some in high angle rescue, some in trench collapse rescue, some water rescue and other specialties.

About 54 people have been involved in the recent search for Stacks, he said, about 30 task force members and 20 local search and rescue personnel. They have repeatedly combed a four-mile section of the east riverbank and searched the Tallahatchie as far as Graham Lake.

Training

The team tries to be prepared for as many different types of searches or rescues as possible.

“We train every month,” Clayton said, and they also train with local volunteer fire department members on such methods of wilderness searches.

Clayton is one of 18 certified instructors in the state with OSAR (Overland Search and Rescue) and NASAR (The National Association for Search and Rescue). He teaches SARTEC 1 and 2, which includes such things as man tracking and MLPI (Missing Lost Person Incident).

Searches can be demanding of time and resources

Clayton said the team gets several calls a year. Most are not as extensive as the search for Jessica Stacks.

“We had people down there 14 days straight,” he said, mostly from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m.”

What happens when a search is needed?

Team members are alerted and Clayton takes the command center to as near the location where the person was last seen as practical.

Starting a search

“It takes about 45 minutes to set the command center up,” Clayton said. The command center needs to be stabilized, the generator started, communications antennas raised and equipment powered up generally.

Searchers have access to an array of technology and internet availability is not necessary for the Garmin mapping equipment.

What happens next depends on the nature of the search.

Search techniques vary

For water searches, Clayton has a dive trailer to bring. In it are 10 diving wet suits plus air tanks, a compressor and various tools. “We hope to have six to eight dry suits soon,” he said. The dry suits are needed for cold weather and, at about $2,000 each, have full face masks and radio communications so divers can communicate with the surface and each other. Dive teams are sometimes brought into the area from other parts of the state as well.

Boat searches can support divers and some carry cadaver dogs that can alert to a body in the water as well as on land. Clayton has a side scan sonar unit that can help map comparatively large areas of the bottom of the body of water below the boat.

At present, the search and rescue team does not have a boat but received approval from Union County supervisors on a 3-1 vote to buy one this past week.

District Four Supervisor Randy Owen opposed the $11,323 purchase saying the boat was not needed and would not be used enough. District Three Supervisor C. J. Bright abstained. He said he was not opposed to a boat but thought a different type would be more suitable and added that there was no need to rush since the county was borrowing his boat and it would be available. The board voted 3 to 1 to acquire the search boat with Bright abstaining

Boats have been borrowed by county residents or neighboring agencies in the past.

The boat being purchased will have a dive platform and ladder to assist divers and provide a platform for cadaver dogs to stand on. A light mast will be able to provide lighting for night water searches.

Drones can help with land and water searches, as can helicopters. The Stacks search has used both.

One of Clayton’s tools is a DJI Phantom IV drone at a cost of about $5,000. It has a range of one and a half miles, can stay in the air up to 30 minutes on one battery charge, depending on whether Clayton is taking still photos or videos. He has five battery packs that can be recharged while others are in use.

The DJI Phantom IV drone can automatically fly a grid pattern.

This drone does not have thermal imaging capability, but Clayton is able to borrow one that does if necessary. A thermal imaging drone was borrowed and used in the search for Jessica Stacks.

Individual searchers can be tracked

An innovative tracking system is used to keep up with where searchers on the ground are, and what area has been searched.

Begun as a means to keep up with hunting dogs, the system uses small transmitters that send signals to a receiver every two seconds and can be effective up to two miles. Where they go and have been shows up as a line path on a satellite map on computer screens, much in the same way a person’s timeline can been seen on Google Maps.

Up to 20 transmitters can send to one handheld unit’s screen and the county owns 23 of the transmitters and five receivers, plus one special receiver in Clayton’s truck that can keep up with all of them remotely.

Also important is that the system does not require internet access; satellite imaging comes directly through the Garmin system.

The command center has a wireless laser printer so searchers can print photos and maps remotely and a large plotter turns out wall-sized maps to plan searches and show paths as well.

9/11 and Katrina are responsible for some of the technology

For communication, the center has an ACU-1000 Modular Interoperability System. Simply put, the device allows a wide variety of radio communication devices on different frequencies and bands to work together as one despite their differences.

That $65,000 system is really a backup at this point, replaced by the state-wide MSWIN system. The Mississippi Wireless Integrated Network was developed after Hurricane Katrina when emergency responders going to the Gulf Coast learned they essentially could not communicate with each other because of different systems and frequencies.

With handheld MSWIN transceivers, Clayton and rescuers can easily communicate directly with each other but also officials in 97 percent of the state.

Clayton estimates Union County has received equipment in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Some say the government is throwing away huge amounts of taxpayer money for things not needed.

Others argue that it is like insurance: you pay for it hoping you never need it, but when you need it there is no substitute.

Clayton points to the extended use the team has been put to in the search for Jessica Stacks and the five days’ continuous use when an aircraft crashed near County Road 121 as reasons we need to be prepared.

“You never know what’s coming the next day,” he said.

Below are photos of some of the equipment as well as scenes from the recent search:

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