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BORSTAR team puts training to work

August 23, 2001|By JENNIFER RALTON-SMITH, Staff Writer

On Aug. 3 the U.S. Border Patrol Search Trauma and Rescue Team assigned to the El Centro sector graduated from its academy at Camp Pendelton in Oceanside.

Fewer than three weeks later the team had completed its fifth rescue mission, locating some 20 undocumented immigrants, among them two children, from the harsh terrain in the Imperial Valley's west desert.

On three of those missions BORSTAR retrieved bodies of immigrants who had died. One was the mother of the rescued children.

The areas surrounding the base of the mountain grade and the canyons south of Ocotillo along the border region literally become a death trap for many immigrants who brave the desert regions in the summer months.


Border Patrol officials said the effectiveness of BORSTAR teams in saving lives in areas such as San Diego and Tucson was the impetus for expanding the BORSTAR network to four more southern sectors, including El Centro and Yuma, earlier this year.

The El Centro BORSTAR team has 17 agents, with the possibility of expanding into two teams of 14 agents. The present team is divided into six specialized groups of two to three agents. Over the next few months agents will receive additional training within that specialty.

The groups include swift water rescue, technical, communication, navigation and air operations teams.

Swift water rescue includes rescues from fast-flowing canals and situations of flash flooding.

Technical rescue encompasses rope rescues that may include rappelling down the side of a mountain or a sheer vertical drop down a canyon wall.

The communication team is responsible for the logistics and documentation of all rescue operations. These are the people responsible for ensuring a rescue team is activated and in the field in the quickest possible response time.

The navigation team has the task of mapping and plotting grid search coordinates into a topographical map program on a laptop they deploy in the field. On rescue missions each agent carries a state-of-the-art hand-held global positioning satellite unit. The agents radio in their grid coordinates, which enables the navigation team to cohesively plot and organize the grid search.

At mission's end, data from individual GPS units is downloaded into the computer program and used as a method of review and as a training tool.

Air operations specialists are responsible for coordinating rescue efforts with Border Patrol El Centro sector air operations.

In its helicopter fleet the El Centro sector flies the OH-6, a small, maneuverable aircraft ideal for searching rough terrain. Both the San Diego and Yuma sectors also maintain the larger UH1-H "Huey" for carrying heavy loads and deploying agents into a search area quickly.

BORSTAR El Centro Supervisor Richard Woodard said excellent communication and coordination between his team and members of the air operations team has meant rapid response time to incidents. Response time for ground units can be as short as 30 minutes in the west desert.

Specialized training for agents is intensive and ongoing. Each agent has received general training in his individual specialty. In the months ahead team members will receive cross-training in other team members' specialties. This will allow for optimal flexibility for team members when deployed on missions.

All BORSTAR agents have to be certified to the level of emergency medical technician, a month-long course. Some agents are scheduled to receive advanced EMT training in the future.

During rescue missions in mountainous regions, agents carry a full pack weighing 50 pounds. Those agents assigned to the technical rescue team might find themselves hauling even heavier packs loaded with mountain rescue equipment, including ropes and pulleys.

A high level of physical fitness is stressed for each team member, with quarterly fitness tests mandatory to remain on the team.

Although El Centro's BORSTAR team became operational at the height of summer and was thrown into its first rescue mission only days after graduation, Woodard said high morale and dedication to duty have helped to ensure the first few rescue and retrieval missions went smoothly.

Woodard stressed the fact the agents might one day be called upon to rescue one of their own has heightened their determination to be the best.

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