Bravery and sacrifice

2020-02-10 11:32
Warrant Officer Fred Brand at Howick Falls.

Warrant Officer Fred Brand at Howick Falls. (Moeketsi Mamane)

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From braving icy waters, to staring down the edge of cliffs, and performing daring rescues from helicopters, members from Pietermaritzburg’s police search and rescue unit have seen it all.

The unit, which was out in full force at the Midmar Mile this weekend, has made headlines several times for pulling off heroic rescues or near-impossible body excavations.

Weekend Witness spoke to members of the unit to get an insight into how they cope with the fear and trauma that comes with their line of work and, most importantly, what drives them to do a job that most people would never consider. Team members said the job comes with a lot of personal sacrifice, like family time, but said they are fuelled by passion and the satisfaction that comes with pulling off a successful rescue.

Warrant Officer Fred Brand, who has served on the unit for about a decade, said it was difficult to articulate what goes through members’ minds before a rescue. “So much goes through your mind like, ‘why am I doing this when I could be at a braai with my family’. But fear is good because it keeps you safe.

“We always say that if someone is about to do a rescue and they’re not scared, then they must move off and let the next person do it, because that’s when you make stupid mistakes. It’s also about knowing your team-mates have your back and trusting them.

“It’s also about ensuring you prepare your equipment,” Sergeant Nolan Wallace said. “We train for a lot longer than other units because safety is such a big part of our job.”

Constable Jesse Maré said rescues would be impossible without teamwork. “The people we work with are hard workers, and sometimes when you feel tired, seeing them push that extra bit lifts you up.

“We have to have complete faith in the team and our systems and that helps us manage the fear.”

pietermaritzburg search and rescue

Members of the search and rescue team at a rescue at Howick Falls. 

Search and rescue veteran Warrant Officer Karl Gouws said intense training was essential for their job. “We need to be mentally and physically well-trained. When you get to a scene, you have a split second to make a decision on what to do.

“This is where the training kicks in and it’s almost like you’re a robot and are able to make quick decisions. We also know each others’ strengths and weaknesses and that helps.”

But officers said the job also came with some degree of mental anguish, and it was often difficult for outside people to relate to what they go through.

“It’s hard to discuss what we go through, even with psychologists. So we speak to each other about it because we’re all in the same boat,” Maré said.

Brand said sometimes officers went home agitated or emotional after intense operations, and a solid family support structure was important.

“Sometimes we wonder whether we could have got to a scene faster and saved a life and that’s very tough. Sometimes we get very emotional at scenes and sometimes we cry.”

Maré added: “Hearing a mother howling when we find the body of her child is one of the worst things. I just want to get away from the scene as fast as possible when that happens. We’re all parents and we know what that mother is going through.

“We miss a lot of birthdays and anniversaries and things like that. The job comes with a lot of sacrifice, and you have to make your family understand that this comes with the job.”

pietermaritzburg search and rescue

Warrant Officer Karl Gouws holds rescue dog Chazz, joined by Warrant Officer Fred Brand and Constable Jesse Maré. 

Wallace said: “We also say that, as much as the job may be difficult, if you’re using counselling services after every rescue then maybe it’s not for you. That’s because the other side of the coin is that we’re able to help people get closure when we find bodies.”

Maré added: “That’s the main thing that drives us. About 99% of the time we are recovering bodies but that one percent when we rescue a person still alive reaffirms that this is our calling in life. Nothing beats that feeling.”

Brand said: “It’s not a job where you can get rich, it’s about having that passion to serve your country. We are able to provide closure for families when a loved one goes missing.”

Gouws said: “It’s 100% about having passion. If you don’t, you won’t last long in this job. It’s also about having compassion and knowing what families go through when we make rescues.”

The unit also commended their seniors and the province for always providing necessary support.

Read more on:    pietermaritzburg
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