By Sarah Shiver
Photos courtesy of Team BUSAR
When exploring Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is not uncommon for visitors to find themselves momentarily disoriented. Usually this confusion is resolved by quickly glancing at a map or asking a fellow hiker for directions. But for backcountry explorers who stray from the trail, face harsh weather conditions, or experience a medical emergency, outside help is often necessary. One dedicated group that is always ready to assist in search and rescue operations within the park is Team BUSAR.
Team BUSAR, also known as Backcountry Search and Rescue, is an all-hazards search and rescue (SAR) team that supports and assists GSMNP with SAR operations. The team is part of the BUSAR Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by Wildlife Ranger Andrew Herrington in 2015. “He recognized the need for a team to assist with search and rescue operations in the Great Smoky Mountains,” said Matt Jernigan, vice president and co-founder of BUSAR Foundation. “Since then, Team BUSAR has grown to over 20 members.”
SAR operations within GSMNP are often very challenging due to the park’s terrain, which is one of the reasons having a group of specialists like Team BUSAR available to augment NPS SAR operations is essential. “Team members all have extensive backcountry and outdoor experience,” said Jernigan. “They are all skilled in land navigation, off-trail travel, search techniques, lost person behavior, tracking, winter operations, wilderness medicine, low/high angle rescue, and swiftwater rescue.”
Professional experience with the National Park Service, Army, Navy, Air Force, tracking, survival, firefighting, law enforcement, and medical professions certainly sets this team apart, but experience alone isn’t enough to qualify someone to join Team BUSAR. Individuals must also demonstrate that they are physically fit enough to handle the challenges of SAR operations in the park. “Physical fitness is essential to completing assignments effectively and safely,” said Jernigan. “It is so important that each team member must pass a strenuous physical fitness test each year. The test is designed to mimic real-world conditions of an extended off-trail SAR.”
It can be intimidating to even consider joining a team that dedicates itself to performing such hazardous missions, but the members of Team BUSAR each have their own reasons for choosing to help people who get lost or injured in the park.
“I am a founding member of the team and joined because I love the park. Its beauty and abundance of recreational activities make it such an amazing place,” said Jernigan. “I’ve been an avid hiker, backpacker, and trail runner all my life so BUSAR is a natural extension of what I like to do. Also, I serve on the board of Experience Your Smokies Tennessee and have been a volunteer in the park in various capacities for many years. So Team BUSAR is another opportunity to give back to the park and an opportunity to help those in need.”
To learn more about Team BUSAR or the foundation, visit teambusar.org.