By Steven Krolak
(NEW ALBANY, Ind.)–Whether chasing a suspect or rescuing a hiker with a broken leg, first responders from law enforcement and other agencies frequently find themselves off the beaten track, in woods, marshes, swamps and other unpaved ecosystems.
It occurred to Anna Ries that they might need to know what plants are out there, to minimize the risk of danger to themselves, their service animal companions or the people being rescued.
Ries received a bachelor of arts degree in general studies and a bachelor of science degree in allied health, safety concentration, in 2013. She is now mission coordinator and vice president of Salem Mounted Search and Patrol, Inc., a new volunteer group of citizens that is on call to supplement the efforts of official first responders. In that capacity, she reached out to Dr. David Taylor to set up a training for herself, her team and other first responder partners in the area.
Ries’ team includes four state-certified emergency medical responders, and trains with several other organizations, such as Hardin County Mounted Search and Rescue.
“Being mission coordinator for a ground search team, one has to think about all the pros and cons of what we do,” Ries said. “Knowing what plants are out there in our ‘backyard’ and how they can affect us and our animals is very important, so reaching out to Dr. Taylor came to mind because the Indiana Summer Flowering Plants course he teaches at IU Southeast was very informative and fun.”
Joining Ries in the training were Nancy Barr of the Scott County Sheriff’s Posse and Michelle Mantilla of North Star International K9 Training Association (NSI K9) among others.
On a recent Saturday, the group walked a section of the famed Knobstone Trail near Salem, passing through open meadows, forests and bottomlands, eyes peeled for invasive species and poisonous plants of all kinds. Taylor had prepared a handout as a field guide, and for the next two hours the responders peppered him with questions about what they were seeing.
Different participants have different, and very specific, needs. The group structure, with an easy flow of information and a hands-on (or rather, hands-off) approach to the plants themselves and the ability to compare and discuss, helped the individuals go beyond those limited needs and gain shared insights that they can apply.
The mounted sheriff’s posse performs everything from search and rescue to crowd control and even marches in parades. When working in and around wooded areas, the riders need to be aware of species that could poison or harm a horse through ingestion or contact. They also need to recognize new invasives and be aware of how they behave, according to Barr.
For example, some invasives may contribute to a greater risk of fire.
NSI K9 provides professional-level K9 search and recovery services in Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky. The all-volunteer group regularly assists law enforcement, emergency management and other agencies, according to Mantilla.
“A lot of the calls we respond to end up being in wilderness or wooded areas,” Mantilla said. “It’s helpful for us to know what plants can be harmful both to our K9 partners and to ourselves while out on a search.”
On this hike, Taylor pointed out Japanese honeysuckle, purple loosestrife, Japanese stiltgrass and multiflora rose, all invasive plant species that are actively outcompeting and supplanting native species, altering local ecology in our region. Poison ivy was identified, and Taylor discussed this plant’s many phases and “looks,” which help to account for its reputation. Datura and pokeweek, two species that have serious effects when ingested, were also discussed.
Not only do responders need to know what they are looking at, they need to know it in a hurry. It’s the type of knowledge that requires both botanical expertise and a sense of what’s happening now. Taylor provided information on how to gain clues from the apparent ecology—for example, certain invasives develop monocultures that are visually recognizable even from a distance—as well as apps for species identification, including one on invasive species in the area that he is building, using data collected for the IU Southeast herbarium.
“Training like this broadens the community-members’ knowledge of local flora,” Ries said. “Working together with with representatives from other first-responder groups is what makes a community great!”
Homepage photo: a mix of field plants from the Knobstone Trail. First responders need to recognize poisonous and invasive species to protect themselves and their nonhuman partners. Photo courtesy of Zanya Caudill.