Growing up in Flint, Michigan I was the youngest kid in the neighborhood. When playing football with the big guys, they usually let me participate so they could practice their tackling. But, other than sports, I was often told to "get lost." I don't know if the guys were slipping away for a smoke or some other nefarious activity. At any rate, they didn’t want me around.
If you get lost in San Diego County, you will have an expertly trained, highly mobile, technologically sound group of people looking for you. I am referring to the San Diego County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team.
In March, 1963, Sheriff Joseph O’Connor formed the first formal Search and Rescue group. The team is primarily responsible for search and rescue missions involving lost or stranded persons within the unincorporated areas of the County and certain cities who contract with the Sheriff.
Upon request, the Search and Rescue team will respond to any other cities and even other counties within the state under mutual aid guidelines. The team also activates during certain natural disasters such as wildfires, flooding, and earthquakes.
California Government Code 26614 grants authority for citizens to perform Search and Rescue duties. Interested candidates undergo an interview process to determine their suitability for the program. There is also an orientation process.
All Search and Rescue members are registered with the San Diego County Office of Disaster Preparedness as Disaster Service Workers. This registration enables members to qualify for State Workers’ Compensation benefits in the event of personal injury or death while on duty.
San Diego’s group is recognized nationally as a member of the National Association of Search and Rescue (NASAR).
Citizen volunteers attend a rigorous academy and have over 220 hours of search and rescue training prior to responding to any missions. While there are several facets to the team (that will be treated later) the actual field responders must be a physically hardy lot. They must be prepared to hike for several miles carrying a 20-pound pack with emergency supplies and to stay overnight in the wilderness, if required. All of the equipment they use is purchased at their own expense. The County does provide shoulder patches that must be sewn on the shirts required by the team and an identification card. The County also provides an official mesh baseball cap.
Searchers must be knowledgeable in first aid, evidence collection, and basic police procedures. If a rescuer happens to venture onto a crime scene, he or she must be very careful not to contaminate the scene and destroy evidence.
Search and Rescue is comprised of several units of expertise, each specializing in particular skills which enhance an operation. The units include Rescue, Communications, Canine, Medical, Logistics, Mounted, Motorized (4X4s and off-road vehicles), Training, and Administrative.
Their mobile command bus is equipped with printers, radios, a plotting table, Global Positioning Systems, night vision goggles, Television/VCR, and maps.
The group has over 200 volunteers who contribute in excess of 20,000 man hours per year. The team is composed of several different ranks, including some full-time deputies. The majority of the team are civilians and their official classification is “Rescue Volunteer.” The volunteers come from all walks of life. Some are retired law enforcement, former Special Forces from the military such as SEALs. Some members are housewives, accountants, real estate brokers, and any other occupation.
The team works in the wilderness to find lost hikers and outdoor enthusiasts who may be lost, disoriented, or injured.
Their urban rescue efforts usually involve walkaways from group homes, or Alzheimer’s patients who wander from their homes or a facility.
Next week I get to the nitty gritty of the actual preparedness and work of the group.