By SHELLEY TOPP
After more than 40 years working as a volunteer with Oxford Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) Ron Ealam still finds the work rewarding.
However during his first search and rescue operation, when he was 18, he made a mental note “never to do this again”.
The two-day search took place in miserable weather at Thirteen Mile Bush near Springfield.
“It was so cold, and in those days we had tents with no floor,” he said.
But after a good result he had a change of heart. Now he is the Oxford search and rescue group’s president, and has been a rescue dog handler since 2001.
Ron’s first dog, border collie Tess, died three weeks ago, aged 18.
“It is very sad to lose her but she had a great life,” he said.
Tess had been retired for eight years before her death. She made three successful finds during her service and helped Ron train her replacement Seika also a border collie.
Ron is a self-employed builder who lives in Oxford with his wife Jo, manager of the Oxford Community Trust. His father Denis, who died two years ago, established Oxford LandSAR in 1968, and now Ron’s son Jeremy has also joined the team, in charge of logistics.
Watching Ron work with Seika it is clear they share a close bond. He is grateful that being self-employed allows him the time to do the volunteer work and training with Seika he enjoys so much. But he insists she is not a pet.
“You can’t have a working dog and a pet,” he said. “It doesn’t work.”
Rescue dogs need to be able to recognise human scent, and their handler needs to be able to recognise their dog’s change in behaviour when they are tracking. When everything went right it was extremely rewarding being able to return a lost or injured person to their family, knowing that the dog played a role in that result, Ron said.
Modern technology is now an important tool in search and rescue techniques with the dogs wearing special GPS tracking collars when they are working. Information from the collars can be downloaded on to a computer to analyse the dog’s search area during a rescue operation with pinpoint accuracy.
The initial training for search and rescue dogs is intense and continues after qualifying. The dogs and their handlers must attend two training weekends and an assessment course annually in addition to undertaking ongoing regular training exercises every week to ensure they maintain fitness and are properly prepared for their search and rescue work at all times.
It has been a busy time for Ron and his family since the 7.8 November 14 earthquake with Jo, their son Jeremy, daughter, Julia, and son in law Tony, all involved in North Canterbury earthquake recovery work too.
It began for Ron and Jo on the morning of the big quake with a phone call from police asking them to open up the Oxford Fire Station to accommodate the influx of about 170 people who had arrived in Oxford after coastal tsunami warnings. Ron and Seika also did a lot of work in Christchurch after the 2010 and 2011 earthquakes.
New Zealand Land Search and Rescue (LandSAR) was established in 1994.
It is a national organisation of volunteers within New Zealand providing free land search and rescue services 24/7 to the police and the public.