Ready to Rescue
Game wardens expand ways
to serve with new K-9, dive,
search-and-rescue and other teams.
By Mike Cox
Its blades slicing the clear-blue autumn sky that followed devastating flooding in Central Texas the night before, the Department of Public Safety helicopter hovered over an Austin neighborhood as first responders helped a couple of children descend from the dangling basket that had carried them to safety.
The youngsters had been trapped with their parents atop their roof when Onion Creek turned into a raging river after more than a foot of overnight rain set off widespread flooding in Travis, Caldwell, Hays and Comal counties. Although safe, they were scared and crying.
Then they spotted Game Warden Christy Vales’ dog, Ruger, a Labrador retriever. Their tears drying quickly, the kids bolted toward the dog to pet it, their recent harrowing experience at least temporarily forgotten. Other children displaced by the flood joined in.
The game warden, a member of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s newly created K-9 team, had been assisting with search-and-rescue operations since early that Halloween morning. She had Ruger with her as part of his ongoing training, which will involve search and rescue as well as detection of illegally taken game and fish. Vales and other Texas game wardens participated in water rescues of dozens of people and helped evacuate scores of residents from their water-surrounded residences during and after the flood, which claimed seven lives and resulted in millions of dollars in damage.
Search-and-rescue unit members were trained in land and water rescues and learned how to escape from a sinking helicopter.
As fully commissioned peace officers, Texas’ 532 game wardens have long assisted local authorities and other state agencies in times of crisis, but the TPWD Law Enforcement Division recently established a cadre of specialty teams made up of volunteer game wardens willing to take extra training and respond to situations anywhere in Texas at a moment’s notice while also maintaining their regular duties.
In addition to the K-9 team, TPWD has formed new teams to handle advanced crime scene reconstruction, diving search and recovery, boat theft, search and rescue (including swift-water rescue) and high-risk work such as border operations and hostage situations.
“The county game warden is still our bread and butter,” says Law Enforcement Special Operations Chief Grahame Jones. “They look for game and fish law violations, do community outreach and assist with community policing. The teams we’ve set up enhance what we offer the people of Texas without diminishing the role of the local game warden.”
Presidio County-based game wardens and members of a newly formed TPWD search-and-rescue team responded to a crisis at Big Bend Ranch State Park in October last year, assisting park staff and other first responders in the search for a missing 43-year-old woman.
Cathy Frye and her husband, Rick McFarland, 58, had gone to Big Bend National Park to celebrate their 13th wedding anniversary, but they had to leave the federal park because of the partial government shutdown. Deciding to continue their hiking vacation in nearby but unfamiliar 300,000-acre Big Bend Ranch State Park, they got lost, running out of food and water. They spent two days wandering lost and two nights sleeping outside. On the third day, when Frye said she couldn’t walk any farther, McFarland left her to get help. He succeeded in finding where they had parked their vehicle and then drove to park headquarters to report the emergency.
A New Braunfels waterfall provides the setting for swift-water exercises.
That triggered a response by dozens of game wardens, park personnel and help from other agencies. After interviewing McFarland at length that night, a search-and-rescue team member, using digital images (taken by McFarland while hiking) to determine where the couple had been, marked a circle on a topographic map where he believed the woman would be located. And that proved to be the case.
Surveying the area from high ground, the game warden spotted Frye lying in some shade in a dry creek bed on Oct. 6, two days after her husband left her to go find help.
“I've not seen her yet, but overjoyed is nowhere near how I feel,” McFarland texted friends after getting the word that his wife had been found alive.
Sunburned, bruised and suffering from severe dehydration and numerous imbedded cactus needles, Frye was flown from the park to a hospital in El Paso.
“We’ve been doing these sorts of things for years and years, but now we’re trying to formalize it and make it consistent,” says Jones of the successful high-tech rescue effort. “We want to be able to deliver the same service to the people of Texas whether it’s in El Paso or Beaumont.”
All of TPWD’s new law enforcement teams are highly mobile and capable of a quick response.
“We can have a team anywhere in Texas in four hours, and that’s the worst-case scenario,” Jones says. “A lot of times it’s much faster.”
Jones adds: “We’re steeped in tradition and very mindful of our past. It’s an important part of who we are, but we have to look to the future.”
In addition, the TPWD game warden force has become only the fourth state conservation law enforcement agency to be accredited by the Boat Operations and Training Program of the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.
“As the Texas Navy, our game wardens and the vessels they operate have an important role in maintaining the state’s maritime security, in addition to their day-to-day work in enforcing our conservation laws,” says TPWD Executive Director Carter Smith. “The training the wardens will receive by way of this accreditation will make these men and women and our coastwide fleet even more effective.”
TPWD’s game warden fleet is now accredited by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators and meets national standards of readiness.
Though the Republic of Texas had a battle-hardened Navy in the 1830s and 1840s, it was former Gov. George W. Bush who first referred to TPWD’s modern fleet as the “Texas Navy.” Since then, the department’s fleet has grown to 564 vessels, including two 65-foot Gulf of Mexico patrol vessels, 26 Safeboats (a high-speed boat with an enclosed cabin that can be used in bays or the open Gulf) and myriad specialized vessels including five gun boats equipped with .30-caliber machine guns.
In preparation for the accreditation, the Law Enforcement Division developed strict training in a wide range of maritime functions, including boat crew member training, boat operator search and rescue, boating accident investigation, boating under the influence enforcement, officer water survival, tactical boat operations, pursuit and stop techniques and operations to detect radiation and nuclear devices.
Here are some of the newest game warden specialized teams.
This specialized unit is made up of 25 specially trained and equipped game wardens for response to natural and man-made disasters, swift-water rescues and search-and-rescue operations. Team members received 25 hours of training in swift-water rescue, 16 hours of water rescue instructor training, 16 hours of land navigation training, 16 hours of rescue boat operations training, 32 hours of officer water survival training and six hours of instruction in how to escape from a helicopter that has fallen into water and sunk. (That training was conducted in the world’s largest swimming pool at NASA headquarters in Clear Lake City.)
Forensics Reconstruction and Mapping Team
This group of 17 game wardens has received extensive training in using state-of-the-art technology to reconstruct crime scenes and produce 3D videos re-creating accidents. Several team members were called to Lake Corpus Christi last fall to reconstruct the circumstances of a boating accident that injured five people.
The first five of 10 game warden handlers and dogs graduated last fall from an intense eight-week training program at the Utah Department of Public Safety’s prestigious Police Officer Standards and Training facility in Salt Lake City. A second wave of canine handlers and dogs attended the course in January.
Funding for the purchase of dogs and travel to and from Utah was provided by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Foundation through a private donor. With the exception of a minimal administrative fee, the Utah facility provided the training at no cost.
The dogs will be used for various purposes including detection of illegally taken or smuggled game and fish, search and rescue, cadaver search and narcotics enforcement. Most of the dogs will have dual functions such as wildlife detection and search and rescue.
Dogs are becoming part of the TPWD team in the K-9 unit.
Underwater Search and Recovery Dive Team
This team of nine game wardens is ready to don wetsuits and air tanks and hit the water on short notice to assist in underwater searches and victim recovery.
In addition to the regular training, each member of this team has received 356 hours of training in a wide variety of areas, from underwater crime scene processing to cold-water survival.
Since the unit formed in 2012, team members have recovered drowning victims and evidence in criminal cases.
Maritime Tactical Operations Group
Game wardens maintain the state’s maritime security. TPWD’s Maritime Tactical Operations Group is a specialized unit made up of specially trained and equipped game wardens who can respond to critical waterborne incidents or other unique maritime operations.
Marine Theft Unit
Consisting of 10 game wardens, this team specializes in investigating boat thefts across the state. Since its formation last year, it has seized 61 vessels valued at $443,510, investigated 148 fraud cases and collected $49,412 in owed taxes.
This unit, with 25 game wardens, is designed to serve as what the military calls a “force multiplier.” Team members have received a variety of training and can be used in border operations, dignitary protection or any form of high-risk law enforcement, such as serving felony arrest warrants or hostage situations.
Jones says the teamwork concept extends beyond TPWD. Game wardens frequently work with other state officers, particularly the DPS, as well as city, county and federal agencies.
“We can’t do it alone,” he says. “No agency can.”