When the pager sounds, Woodbine resident Pat Oliva and her colleagues are prepared to drop everything, saddle up their horses and head off into the woods for days of search and rescue work.
In a 1990s version of the cavalry, she and three other western Howard County residents -- Suzanne Anderson, Frank Dietz and Bill Mitchell -- are on call 24 hours a day as part of a mounted search and rescue team.
"It's not galloping to the rescue; it's methodical hours of hard work," says Ms. Oliva, 58, whose job as an emergency room nurse at Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring does take precedence over the rescue calls.
Says Ms. Anderson, a 34-year-old Highland resident: "The search and rescue team is a useful, practical application of what I do for fun."
The statewide volunteer group -- known as Trail Riders of Today Search And Rescue Team -- conducts mounted searches in parks or wooded and undeveloped areas within a 150-mile radius of central Maryland.
Organized in 1992, the 13-member team -- all but one residents of Maryland -- is the search and rescue arm of a larger trail riders' group that has chapters throughout the Maryland-Virginia-Pennsylvania region.
It is the only such team in Maryland, says Coleman P. Brown, the group's search manager and also search team coordinator for the forests and parks division of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
In its three years, the horseback team has taken part in about 25 searches, including last October's search for a 4-year-old Ellicott City girl who had wandered into a cornfield and who other searchers later found curled up beneath a log.
VTC The group got a commendation from Howard County police for " its work in the search in 1993 for a despondent man who had been missing for six days in the Rockburn Park area of Patapsco State Park in Elkridge.
Although they supplement other rescue workers, those on the horseback team say that a well-trained horse can be a big advantage in searching wooded or rugged terrain.
"A horse can carry more equipment and can get into an area faster than someone who is walking," says Ms. Oliva. "The animal enables a person to maintain energy as the searcher focuses on the terrain; also, a horse has an instinct to spot things before people do."
Tfc. Eric Fogle, a bloodhound handler with the Maryland State Police in Frederick, agrees.
"The team can cover a lot of area much quicker on horses," says Trooper Fogle, who has gone on several rescue operations with the group. "They can go places where you can't take a four-wheeler. Mounted searches can make a big difference, especially in places like the state park."
Before that can happen, however, both horse and rider undergo extensive training under guidelines set by the National Association for Search and Rescue of Chantilly, Va., and the Emergency Response Institute, Search and Rescue of Olympia, Wash.
For the riders, that means 250 hours of classroom and field exercises, overseen by Mr. Brown on a volunteer basis.
Training includes looking for subtle clues, such as a snagged piece of clothing; understanding the behavior of a lost person; wilderness survival; and how to handle potential evidence at a crime scene. Members must have first-aid training and cardiopulmonary resuscitation certification.
In addition, riders must be equipped for searches that can take days, outfitting themselves with saddlebags, cold-weather clothing, first-aid items, and water and food for the victim, team member and horse.
For the horses, training is no less important.
"The horses need training to stand still when, for example,
firefighters go by and helicopters take off," says Ms. Oliva. "A horse has to be able to take the noises of the sirens, helicopter whirling and stuff."
Once trained, the team functions under the authority of the official agency responsible for lost or missing persons. That may include police departments, the Civil Air Patrol missions coordinator and federal, state or local emergency services coordinators.
"We have to be professional, prepared and reliable," says Mr. Brown, the search manager and an emergency medical technician for the Owings Mills Volunteer Fire Department.
For those who take part in a search, the experience can be exhilarating and something that forms a tight bond among members of the group.
Ms. Anderson vividly recalls being one of the first team members to arrive on the scene last October, during the search for the lost 4-year-old Ellicott City girl.
She and other members searched through the night in thick brush. About an hour after daybreak, when the news arrived that the child had been found safely by other searchers, the horseback team was elated.
And even after a long night of searching, Ms. Anderson recalls, the members weren't quite ready to head off on their own.
"We all celebrated by going out for brunch," she says.