A Monsey-based search-and-rescue squad has ramped up its own proficiency and training, to be there for the worst-case scenarios while hoping the next call never comes
Photos: Jeff Zorabedian, Giant Stairs Media
om apparently did all the wrong things when going on a hike on a recent Sunday morning. On a day when temperatures reached into the 90s, the lanky, lean 40-year-old didn’t take along a phone, had no sunscreen, no map, no water, and went off on the treacherous walk by himself.
Within a half hour of his hiking on the Palisades Cliffs, where steep inclines of hundreds of feet yawn below the narrow path and where huge boulders and tree stumps are sometimes the only footing, Tom collapsed.
Immediately, a group of frum men called Community Search and Rescue (CommSAR for short) set out from Monsey to rescue Tom. Complicating matters was the necessity of schlepping Tom along. That’s because Tom was merely a mannequin, a 40-pound dummy used in their training drill.
Our rendezvous on the Palisades Cliffs was part of a rain-or-shine monthly training exercise I would be taking part in with these search-and-rescue first responders for hikers lost in the wilderness. Out of CommSAR’s 35 on-call volunteers — mostly outdoorsmen for much of their lives — 17 participated in this drill.
“Come prepared,” I was warned, “and be ready for any terrain imaginable.” The e-mail I received from the group contained a variety of pictures of what to expect on this particular maneuver — from a relatively straightforward, rock-strewn trail to treacherous paths hewed out of the mountainside. Much of the trail is bracketed by a wall of solid rock rising on the left and a cliff falling sharply to a ravine below a mere four feet to the right.
Then there was the feared rock scramble, consisting of two miles of corridor — calling this a “trail” would not do justice to what actually is a complicated labyrinth of footpath that only experienced hikers know exists — consisting of giant boulders, one atop the other. Only the most seasoned trekkers take on this part of the woods.
It’s on the rock scramble, called the Giant Stair in local lingo, that these Jewish rescue rangers will be holding their drill. They will be carrying up a full-sized mannequin, diagnose him with heatstroke or some other life-threatening condition, provide emergency first aid, and then transport him back down on a litter — a sort of rough-and-ready stretcher. If they’re well trained on a mannequin, then real-life hikers in similar danger will have a better chance of survival.
Lost and Found
The group, consisting primarily of Rockland County residents, had its beginnings in the wake of a tragedy in the winter of 2014, when a local man had gone missing and was found in a river 11 days later. The agony of the family and the wider Orthodox community as the search dragged on convinced Jay Schwartz and Mordy Neuman to found CommSAR.
Schwartz, a former Boro Parker who grew up loving the outdoors and spending days hiking the length of the Adirondacks, gathered a group of like-minded outdoorsmen and formed the Community Search and Rescue group. Neuman is a licensed state guide. The group has its roots, Schwartz says, in the legendary 1994 search for Suri Feldman, a girl from Boro Park’s Tomer Devorah high school who got lost in the woods during a class trip.
Today, the group is one of 19 SARs, or search-and-rescue teams, accredited by New York State, and the only one in the Orthodox community to be so certified.
While it started out as an organization similar to Hatzolah for lost hikers, the group has taken on a role in prevention as well. Members regularly visit camps and schools, teaching about basic hiking safety. They also maintain trails in the woods, conduct interagency exercises, and organize community seminars. While hikes used to mean nature walks outside the camp, today’s excursions involve safety gear, experienced hikers as guides, communication devices, and plenty of water.
Certain cell phones can today be used as tracking devices, making it useful for people thinking of hiking through unfamiliar woods, says CommSAR’s Shimon Neuman, who, along with his brother Mordy, are the public faces of the organization. CommSAR members themselves have satellite phones that work without cell tower signals, and also have portable signal devices that allow them to be in touch wherever they are. (A recent breakthrough with push-button communications giant Zello has now brought free communications technology to all first responders.)
Yaakov Geis, a CommSAR member who once worked for the United Nations as an international communications expert, is a regular on the trails near Monsey, clearing brush and trees from footpaths several times a week and surveying the layout for potential new trails.
Several years ago, CommSAR gained access to a software program that statistically estimates where a missing person would be according to leads fed into the system. For the man whose 11-day search led to the group’s founding, for example, the software would have immediately pointed the search parties to his location, according to Mordy Neuman.
“How do I know this?” says Neuman. “Because a few years after the story, once we got the technology, I fed in the leads that we had, and the exact place where he was eventually found came up.”
CommSAR has unfortunately had a busy summer. Just days before we met, they were called in to rescue a bochur from Canada who’d gotten lost hiking in the Vermont woods; and they were involved in the heart-stopping five-day search for Rabbi Reuven Bauman a”h, the Norfolk rebbi who was swept away in a rip current off Virginia Beach while rescuing one of his students.
No Matter What
I arrive at the meeting point for our rescue drill about 8:30 in the morning. A makeshift tent is set up with breakfast — an assortment of salads, nature bars, and rugelach. CommSAR’s command center, a van made out in colorful decor with the group’s logo splashed across three of its sides, is parked nearby.
These drills are held every month, no matter the weather — 100 degrees or subzero temperatures. Once there was a drill scheduled for a wintry day, when a blinding snowstorm and blustery winds made the maneuvers nearly impossible to execute. But they didn’t cancel — because what if that “call” were real? That day, Mordy recalls, it took them nine hours to get in and out of the woods.
The drills always focus on a different area of expertise. Sometimes they train for a search, when a “body” is planted on a mountain and they have to find it. Today’s exercise is about rescuing an ill person, where the team has to traverse a rough terrain of giant boulders.
“In today’s drill,” says Yanky Rosenberg, who will lead today’s exercise, “we are mainly planning on evacuating over big boulders by ‘paving’ over them, which means handing over the litter from one group to the next instead of walking.” Although walking with the litter seems easier, paving is really the only way to move the prone body over the terrain.
Jay Schwartz soon arrives, although he will not be joining us on the hike. A soft-spoken man who owns a computer programming firm, he will stay behind and watch how his mentees operate on their own.
We receive our final set of instructions, take the obligatory group photo and then set out on the day’s grueling journey.
“All right,” Mordy calls out, “let’s have fun.”
Shimmy Deutsch is the medic and Yaakov Geis is in charge of communications. Yossi Botnick, a member of Hatzolah, is medical director. He’ll stay behind at the van. Aryeh Abramowitz is chief of safety.
Aside from myself and a member of the New Jersey Search and Rescue group who has come along for the drill, it’s a sea of orange. Everyone is wearing an orange jacket, protective helmet, and gloves, and carrying bottles of precious hydration. We divide ourselves up into two groups. One party will go ahead and take up the dummy, while the other will follow with the litter, in order to bring the mannequin down after his “illness.”
Shimmy, the medic, says he’ll probably be diagnosing Tom with a sprained ankle and heat exhaustion, but he hasn’t yet made a final decision.
“Stay hydrated and don’t put your hands on anything that you can’t see,” he warns the group before we leave. “Does everyone have at least two liters of water?”
We walk down the road for about three minutes, a kettle of hawks flying lazily overhead, before turning into the woods to begin our descent down the cliffs. For the entire five hours of the hike, there’s little solid ground to step on. If you’re not a hiking enthusiast, such a trek is a seriously arduous undertaking.
I find the group to be a dedicated, caring bunch of fellows, looking out for each other and for me. “Are you okay, reporter?” “Doing good, Mishpacha?”
The image of step after uneven step made up of flat rock accompanies us throughout the hike. A rusted chassis of a car, likely the victim of a horrific accident, appears way too low on the mountain, its various parts strewn across a wide area. A log lies precipitously across an inlet, spanning the wide chasm.
“What would you do if you had to get a patient over such a perilous log?” I question one of the team members.
“We do,” he responds, “whatever rescue we have to do.”
The way down is relatively easy. At about 25 minutes over the trail, we make our first pit stop at a clearing in the woods: a cluster of tall trees forming a canopy high above us, a broken-in-half Tom resting in a wheelbarrow. We take swigs of water and review what’s ahead of us — the jagged rock staircase. We will only be going half a mile in.
Hand to Hand
The call comes in after about five minutes. A “patient” (Tom) is “found” unconscious by a hiker and needs to be rescued. The group ambles over to take a look. In this scenario, the patient has made it all the way down the rock scramble, but got injured on flat earth. The group begins assembling Tom, slowly giving him his height, and then arms and legs. He has a bloody gash over the left side of his face. He is then carried to higher ground for a medical diagnosis.
Shimmy the medic makes his diagnosis: Tom indeed has been brought down by a severe case of heat exhaustion and needs an IV.
“Broken ankle and heat exhaustion,” the medic rules after consulting with his list of potential injuries. Balancing on the top of a craggy rock, the group provides first aid and then buckles him onto the litter, where he will be as safe as anyone. We then begin descending the rock scramble.
It’s perilous for me, even though I have nothing to carry. I’m just focused on not turning into a liability for the group. They have enough on their plate without having to carry me down the cliffs.
For the team, this is serious work, but there’s some humor along the way.
“Oh, my gosh!” one hiking passerby shrieks when she notices the litter with the mannequin. “I thought it was real!”
“If you see a dummy,” one CommSAR member jokes back, “make sure it’s not breathing.”
“I feel safe today,” another hiker says with a laugh as he passes by.
“You should,” Mordy responds.
One maneuver the group wants to focus on is “paving,” or handing over the patient from one sextet to another when navigating steep inclines. This is necessary several times throughout the hike, particularly during one sharp curve that required a slight leap over a boulder. The group prepares for each paving by getting into position — six men above and six below, three on the right side and three on the left.
“Anyone not ready?” Yanky Rosenberg calls. “Okay, one, two, three, lift!”
Obedient throughout the ordeal, Tom, of course, doesn’t complain or cry out. CommSAR members say this is usually the case with real patients as well. The members receive basic training in mental health, and work to calm the patients down and assure them that they’re under the best care possible. That makes it easier for everyone.
“While you’re doing this,” Mordy says to me, pointing to the men hauling the patient, “there’s a lot more going on that you don’t see. The communications people coordinate with the marine rescue units and park rangers. But when we’re here, we have to be very deliberate. We discovered a long time ago that the urge some people have to rush in may just cause more injuries.”
The rescue boats would have greatly aided the CommSAR rescuers getting Tom to safety. About a half hour of walking through the boulders brings us directly to the Hudson River. The police boats are unavailable as of now, so we have to continue bringing Tom out of the woods the traditional way.
We emerge from the woods just as abruptly as we went in five hours ago. As we walk along the Palisades Parkway, cars whizzing by, I ask Yanky Rosenberg, the operations chief, what the scariest part of the day has been.
Scariest part? Real hikers, Rosenberg says, are not scared of the steep drops or the uneven paths.
“There was actually no scary part,” he says. “When you’re well trained and you know what you’re going into, there’s really nothing scary about it. You just follow your protocol, you follow what you were trained for, and everything just goes.”
So how would he grade the day’s performance?
“Ten out of ten,” he says.
You Gotta Have It in You
By the time we make it back to the waiting command center, I’m slightly woozy and my heart is beating heavily from the heat and the grueling ascent. Water is no longer sufficient; I need to replace the electrolytes lost through dehydration. I down a Coke and start feeling better. For some reason, I am the only one who needs the quencher. I may be better off than Tom, but a Boy Scout I’m not.
Jay Schwartz is fiddling with a computer program in the command center as I approach him after the hike. He turns the screen to show me its features. For a man lost at sea, for example, the map would quickly direct searchers to ranges where statistics show bodies float. A married 50-year-old man will statistically be this far away from shore. A missing elderly woman is most likely to be seen over here.
Schwartz is proud of his team, but tells me that just last week, they got three emergency calls at the same time.
“There was an incident on Ice Caves Mountain, we had the story with the bochur in Vermont, and we had a scheduled hike,” Schwartz says. “It was a real stress. We need to have more people, to be able to handle at least two incidents simultaneously. We can’t have only one, two, or three people doing this. This is a real need for Klal Yisrael.”
Schwartz’s short-term goal is to double CommSAR’s membership, because there’s a reason authorities don’t allow just anybody to come help in a search — they need people who know their way around the forest, not untrained volunteers.
“There are a lot of volunteers who show up, which is a tremendous kiddush Hashem, but what we need are more skilled people,” Schwartz says. “An untrained volunteer probably won’t notice the Lieber’s candy wrapper on the trail. They’re not going to notice the Marlboro cigarette butt. They’re not going to know where the grass is pushed in where a person went off the trail. They’re just going to trample all over the place, and then you lose all the clues that you could have had.
“When you have all these people come in all of a sudden, more people get injured, more people get lost, more people are ruining the trails,” he continues. “There are a lot of things that we do differently because we know what we’re doing. But you can’t teach a person to love the outdoors. Either you have it in you, or you don’t. It has to be a certain type of person who has the stamina and has the eagerness to come back and do it again, not someone who says, ‘I never want to go back there.’
“These guys,” he says, sweeping his hand over at his group of men busily decamping from their exercise, “will do it again next week. Klal Yisrael has such skilled people, you just have to allow them to shine.”
“Search and rescue,” Mordy adds, “is a skill based on a lifetime of wilderness passion. Our guys can tell you the difference between a maple and an oak, between magnetic north and true north, and they routinely spend nights camping out in the forest. And that’s what Klal Yisrael deserves, a SAR team that is wholly dedicated to wilderness response and prevention.”
Suddenly, a green Jeep pulls up. It’s the park rangers, coming to say hello. Jay goes off to talk to them. Back at the tent, the members have gathered for a debriefing and to see what lessons were learned from the events of the day.
“By the boulders,” one CommSAR member says insistently, “we need at least 12 people because of the handovers. We need at least six and six — it’s impossible to do fewer than that. And this is aside from the medic and the team leader.”
“One challenge that I see,” Mordy comments, “is that we’re all very talented — but we’re too talented. Sometimes we have to forget about our talents and let someone lead us while we just fall back and listen.
“I’m talking about myself,” he hastens to add. “Sometimes I drowned out our team leader. That’s something everybody has to learn. It’s not about everyone knowing everything, it’s about following orders.”
One by one, each CommSAR member steps forward to pronounce his verdict about the lessons of the day. One points out the safety harnesses were dragging too close to the floor, which is a safety hazard. Another admonishes the group for speaking Yiddish too much, confusing other agencies listening in on the dedicated channel. A third warns that the hikers didn’t bring along enough water. There is also a lot of talk about communications devices.
The only one remaining quiet is Tom. He’s survived climbing the rock scramble, the grating descent on a litter, and several harrowing paving maneuvers. But he couldn’t survive five minutes on flat ground. He’s already folded into pieces and packed into the van where he awaits further service.
And he will again forget to take along water. He’s a dummy, after all.
WHAT SEARCHERS WISH EVERY HIKER KNEW
- To respect the outdoors. Nature is a beautiful place, but if not respected properly, it can become dangerous. Never just go out for a hike unless you know exactly where you are going. No, you cannot just walk into a forest and walk out. Five minutes into the woods, everything looks the same. You only see heaven, earth, and trees.
- To preserve the outdoors, so others may enjoy it too. If the people walking the trail before you didn’t litter, rip branches, or otherwise destroy nature, you would enjoy that beautiful trail. Let the people coming after you enjoy it as well. Take only photos and leave only footprints.
- To call CommSAR before you get lost. True, their phone number is 845-I-AM-LOST, but they would much rather have you call when it is not yet true. If you are not absolutely sure where you are, call right away. Nine out of ten times you can be guided out of the woods over the phone.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 775)