What Makes Texas “Texas”? • Texas Search and Rescue

Many states and municipal organizations across the United States have Search and Rescue (SAR) teams with varying skills and responsibilities. 

TEXSAR is uniquely “Texan” in that it is the largest wildland search and rescue organization in the State, staffed entirely by volunteers. 

It is also a 501(c)3… doing critical work, funded completely from donations. 

Photos provided by TEXSAR.org, used with permission

TEXSAR has been a leader in emergency services and disaster response in the Lone Star State since 2004. Today, it is one of the largest non-paid search and rescue organizations in the State.

Headquartered in Austin, their teams constitute several divisions of trained professionals in their respective fields, and deploy—as a force multiplier—at the request of first responders in all 254 counties in the State. They were incorporated in 2011, with 50 members, primarily focused on ground search and rescue. Today, having noted many needs beyond that, they have evolved to provide flood and swiftwater rescue; K9 search, rescue, and recovery; disaster relief services, wildland fire, aerial search, UAV support, and underwater operations—free of charge. 

TEXSAR Co-founder and Operations Chair, Shawn Hohnstreiter, has a history of helping people. Before he began managing his own construction company, he worked for Habitat for Humanity, helped rebuild post-Katrina New Orleans, and has been a board member of Rodeo Austin for 20 years. “My mission, and our mission, has always been ‘Texans helping Texans.’ We fill gaps that may exist in disaster response, and we do it at no cost to taxpayers, the county, or the state. We are always ready to take the call.” 

The Need Arises

After a drought, which is not uncommon in Texas, a flood can occur with just three inches of rain. TEXSAR has more than 100 swiftwater technicians, and the equipment that can be brought to bear in small, rural communities where the need is not frequent enough to justify the cost. 

Another reason TEXSAR is unique is that Texas has very few public lands. “Because most of Texas is privately owned, we do not respond like other state SAR teams,” Shawn says. “With very few federal and state parks, when it comes to people, we do not deal with lost hikers, hunters, or skiers. We train to recover missing children, individuals with cognitive impairments, runaways, and anyone possibly succumbing to substance abuse or suicidal despondence.”

Professional search and rescue for a person is not a simple act, however; “We have always had good community support when we ask for help, but it is important to have professionals in the field who all speak ‘first responder’ language and can look for clues with the kind of awareness the experts share.” 

While they always provide urban SAR for major collapse events like the Jarrell tornado, Memorial Day floods, or the West plant explosion, because of the manpower and resources involved—sometimes as much as six-figures per day—TEXSAR does not respond to individual requests. “Often, the police will contact us because there is a missing person, and if they are satisfied that the circumstances warrant; i.e., it is not a person with a history of running away or getting into trouble, they will call us.” 

Speaking to an audience in Georgetown earlier this year, Shawn highlighted just one week of work for the group. “We assisted the Texas Rangers with cold case investigations; helped in the recovery of a drowning victim, and our K9 dogs can locate remains even if it is just a single tooth. We provide vertical rescue and man-tracking, which is a lost art. This is a critical need for Border Patrol; dealing with a step-by-step process of where did a person go.”

Shawn says mantracking training includes working in all types of environments and conditions to seek and find figurines that are no bigger than two inches tall. “We go out at night with flashlights and I know the little troll didn’t leave a track, but the person who put it there certainly will have.”  

TECHNOLOGY SUPPORT

TEXSAR is called upon for wide-area and wilderness searches as well. While they have used fixed wing, helicopters, and drone aircraft to support physical and photographic searches for many years, the area they are sometimes deployed to is expansive. “We have one pilot who manages his own business in order to cover the cost of his own airplane fuel; as much as $800 per hour, because the work is very slow, very low, and he has to work methodically.”

To augment their search capability, they now use software that can review hundreds or even thousands of images, taken aerially, to scan for clues based on search parameters. “Once we load the images from drones or other UAVs, we can program the software to look for a blue backpack, or any white object larger than ten square inches. The computer can do in minutes what may have taken a person a day to find; and we don’t often have any luxury of time.” 

Lost Person Behavior

Individuals with Autism or dementia who get lost can succumb to their environments within hours. Shawn says, “Not only do we train in multiple environments for a variety of disaster types, we are tenacious in our study of lost person behavior. There is a lot of data to consider based on specific locations, age, type of impairment, and circumstances leading up to the disappearance. Even a person’s size will tell us that we need to include or exclude things like manholes or underbrush. It is all part of the task to understand how a person arrived at the mental place; i.e., what they were thinking and what their goal may have been, before going missing.” 

Texans Helping Texans

Volunteers take vacation days, leave their businesses, and travel across the state to help. As well, they are responsible for their own personal gear, uniforms, and acquiring their training hours. 

Beyond that, Shawn says, everything they do is made possible through fundraising, which pays for maintenance, food, and fuel. 

There are many ways to support their efforts, which could someday be needed in your own neighborhood. You can contribute financially online at TEXSAR.org/donate, shop at Amazon Smile, donate as an honorarium, and more.  You can also sign up on the website to participate in the 3rd Annual Memorial Clayshoot, June 20 in Dripping Springs. 

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