Lost and Found

By day, Phil Bennett is a geology professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences. But he’s always on call as a volunteer with Travis County Search and Rescue.

Phil Bennett remembers the first fatal car accident he was called to as if it were yesterday. Trouble is, it was 35 years ago. The memories tend to stick around.

But having spent most of his adult life as a volunteer emergency services worker—a firefighter, ambulance EMT, 911 dispatcher, and now, search-and-rescue—he has learned to manage it.

Bennett is a professor in the Jackson School of Geosciences, specializing in hydrogeology and geochemistry. But in his spare time, he’s on call 24-7 for Travis County Search and Rescue, an all-volunteer first responder organization.

He keeps a “24-hour pack” in his car, with enough clothing, equipment, food, and water to get him through at least a 24-hour deployment to a search-and-rescue site. When he’s needed, he’ll get a text message, cell phone call, and home phone call simultaneously.

On a search site the volunteers, who train two to four hours per week plus quarterly weekend trainings, disperse into teams. They rely on their knowledge of human behavior, tracking, navigation, wind patterns, and canine behavior, if search-and-rescue dogs are involved. It’s all part of a complex science called search theory— one of the things that keeps Bennett the Ph.D. motivated. “It’s a learning environment,” he says with pride.

They look for human remains, physical evidence from a crime, and missing people, sometimes alive, sometimes presumed dead.

“You always have the attitude that the person is still alive,” Bennett says. “You’re a better searcher if you have a positive attitude, if you believe you will find the person alive, and you’ll be able to make a rescue as opposed to a recovery.”

Bennett recalls a particularly emotional case last fall, when floodwaters ravaged a southeast Austin neighborhood and swept a mother and baby off a bridge. He first went up in the helicopter to help define a search area. Using his expertise as a hydrogeologist, he correctly identified within 50 meters where the water had swept the two victims. After searchers found the bodies of the mother and then the baby, Bennett went in for the recovery.

“All emergency workers develop skills to decouple themselves from the humanity of the situation so that we can do our job without getting too overwhelmed,” he says.

Bennett unfocuses his eyes on the person, instead concentrating on untangling obstructions or removing debris. Novice volunteers tend to stare. When you stare, you get caught up in the scene. The emotions overtake you.

So how does he press on when faced with unforgettable heartbreak?

“It’s the times that you help somebody,” he answers immediately. He recalls an incident when he encountered a cyclist down on the side of the road, having just been hit by a car. He stopped and called the fire department and an emergency medical helicopter on his fire department radio (this was before cell phones were ubiquitous) and adjusted the cyclist’s head and neck to help him breathe. Within five minutes, the fire department had arrived and the cyclist was loaded onto a Star Flight helicopter. He survived.

Says Bennett, “I went home and told my wife, ‘Well, it’s OK that I’m not getting my lecture perfect for tomorrow, because I did something more important today.”

Photo by Anna Donlan.


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