Wellington District SAREX 2014

A True Test of Fitness, Skills, and Communication in the Wainuiomata Bush

By Julia Mahony

Torrential rain, battering winds and eventual darkness enveloping the hazardous terrain were challenges at the annual Wellington District LandSAR search and rescue exercise (SAREX) Saturday, May 24, 2014.

Such extreme conditions require reliable and efficient back-up from the radio team and six members of the Wellington VHF Group’s AREC Section stepped up to the task.

This year’s SAREX was at Camp Wainui, Wainuiomata, 23km from Wellington city centre. The camp has 240 hectares set in a mixed native bush valley with several tracks.

Five competing teams had been given a choice of eight events for the SAREX. An example tasking involved long distance navigation around 15 checkpoints scattered through the bush, completing challenges including first aid, clue analysis, tracking, observation, gear checks and HF radio tasks, all within a set time period.

LandSAR, Police, and AREC members gathered at base camp before the midday start of the 12-hour event. AREC team leader John Andrews had written the communications plan, HF tasks and score sheets.  John spoke at the briefing and headed the Incident Management Team (IMT) on the day. Five AREC members in total had worked on the SAREX plan in the months leading up to the exercise. Equipment was set-up on the day included a gruelling half-hour climb in rain to deposit a portable repeater on a hilltop.

Sergeant Jo Holden briefing teams

Sergeant Jo Holden briefing teams

During the event, the VHF system was in constant use, using the portable hilltop repeater and a DoC fixed repeater. Including the Police channel, AREC ran four VHF channels and monitored the LandSAR HF channels of 3023 and 5680 kHz.  In the IMT an average of fifty messages per hour scooted across the VHF airwaves, as teams checked into task stations and moved around the exercise area.

Team locations could also be viewed on the Internet using a satellite GPS tracking system being trialled during the event.  “It was great us in the IMT being able to see teams moving between checkpoints in the dark, through wind and rain,’’ John said.

Each team carried two VHF handhelds and an HF radio. The AREC team expected pockets of terrain where VHF didn’t work, even at close proximity.  “The HF radio worked well. It works when VHF doesn’t, so we have to practise using it – when you need it, you really need it,’’ John commented.

The IMT was based in a warm room painted a bright sunny yellow!

Incident Management Team review - image: Nicole Ranger

Despite the wild weather outside, photographs taken by Wellington LandSAR’s Nicole Ranger show team members grinning through the sideways rain.

Cold and wet - image: Nicole Ranger

“Experienced guys came in tired and wet,’’ John said. “It was pleasing that there were no injuries other than the pretend injuries amongst the volunteer victims.’’

The winning team took a moderate strategy approach, beating those who tried completing all their navigation in daylight and leaving the tasks until after nightfall. Another team which tried to complete tasks in daylight and navigate at night became stuck on a ridge and ran out of time, plummeting from the highest score to the lowest.

The AREC effort received a big thank you from Sergeant Jo Holden, Coordinator Search and Rescue, Wellington District Headquarters.

“AREC operators John and Ray worked pretty hard to get HF working for the start. They then maintained communications with all teams throughout the exercise without complaint; there were times when not much was happening, but there were also times when all three channels were going at once!  The annual SAREX is an important part of the training calendar, bringing together SAR volunteers and police, to advance specialist skills. The contribution made by AREC is valuable and appreciated,’’ Jo added.

This was another successful SAREX enhanced by vital support from AREC members. Well done to the Wellington team:

John ZL2HD, Ray ZL2REES, Randal ZL2RJP, Rick ZL2TVY, and Phil ZL2PJG

Images supplied by Nichol Ranger