MADERA COUNTY — Madera County residents can now welcome more than two dozen new volunteers to the ranks of those who are ready, willing and very able to respond to Search & Rescue missions.
Twenty-nine individuals completed the arduous four-month training to become Madera County Search & Rescue (MADSAR) team members, and proved their mettle on Saturday in a mock exercise at the San Joaquin Experimental Range in the O’Neals area.
Becoming a Search & Rescue (SAR) volunteer is not for the faint of heart nor the time-challenged. It requires a major commitment of time and energy, plus the finances to outfit oneself with the necessary equipment. Though many are interested and willing at the outset, the attrition rate from application to graduation is about 40 percent.
Recruiting efforts for new MADSAR volunteers ran from Nov. 1 through Dec. 31, 2015, and about 50 applications were submitted. Those applicants then received a schedule of classes, and once the reality of the time commitment for this training was presented in black and white, the first 10 percent dropped out. Another 10 percent were lost during orientation as trainers laid out just what is required to be a part of MADSAR.
“Once you hear the truth about what you have to do and the training involved, well, you can hear about it and read about it, but when you’re gone three Saturdays in a row for seven hours of training, the reality sets in,” said Mike Perreira, MADSAR Academy Team Leader who has been involved in MADSAR for 13 years and runs the Academy with other team leaders wife Brenda and Ron Vargas. The rigors of the training saw the loss of another 20 percent of the recruits.
Training is held at Minarets High School in O’Neals over eleven Saturdays between Jan. 9 and Apr. 2, with two Saturdays available for additional training for those who choose to take advantage of those optional days. Final written and field tests were administered on Apr. 23. Oh, and there’s homework.
Training covers a broad range of disciplines including Navigation and Maps, CPR and First Aid, Rope Rescue, Helicopter Safety, Search Techniques and Theory, Radio Communications, Tracking, Survival and Improvisation, Travel Skills, Physiology and Fitness, Safety in SAR Environs, Clothing and Ready Pack Prep, even Legal and Ethical issues.
Volunteers are required to have all the necessary supplies and equipment, and their costs can run into the many hundreds of dollars, depending on how much gear they many already own. They need to be prepared with a map and compass, headlamp/flashlight and extra batteries, waterproof matches or firestarter, gloves and rain gear, carabiners and cord, flagging tape and light sticks, rope and measuring tape, sunscreen and sunglasses, water bottle and filter, multi-purpose knife and duct tape, an emergency shelter, and extra clothing, food and water.
They must also have a complete first aid kit containing everything from bandages and protective gloves to antihistamine, Benadryl and acetaminophen.
A step up from the regular SAR volunteers (classified as Type 2) are Type 1 team members, who have been physically qualified for longer missions. The test for Type 1 searchers is modeled after the U.S. Forest Service Arduous Pack Test, which involves a 3-mile hike carrying a 45-pound pack which must be completed in under 45 minutes. It is administered every two years, and current members must pass the test to maintain their Type 1 status. While on SAR incidents, they must also carry food and water for three days, a small stove and cook kit, and a sleeping bag and pad, or bivouac supplies.
During Saturday’s mock search exercise, five teams of trainees were each paired with veteran MADSAR team members and assigned a search area, averaging about 50 acres in size.
A white board at the mobile command post told searchers who they were looking for, and teams gathered to go over their maps, receive instruction on safety concerns which had been evaluated and identified by MADSAR members the day before, and prepare for any true medical emergencies that may arise during the exercise. While the mission is to locate and rescue the subject of the search, the safety of the team is critical. They can’t be of assistance to others if their own safety isn’t front and center in any situation.
My guide for the day was Madera County Sheriff’s Detective Neil Cuthbert, whose wife Linda – a former Madera County Sheriff’s Dispatcher – was part of the group of trainees. We went along as Team Delta drove out to their search area. Upon arrival, the searchers oriented themselves as to landmarks and compass direction, identified their search grids and with 10-foot spacing between each one, set out through the tall grass.
Teams stayed in regular communication with those back at base, and about halfway through the search when a backpack was located by the team, they immediately called that information in to the command post.
Just over an hour into the search, Team Delta located their subject – a woman in her 40s with a broken leg lying under a tree. They then called back to base for a Stokes litter, which was delivered to the site, and the injured party was evaluated, lifted with a tarp onto the litter, secured for transport and carried out by eight MADSAR members to a waiting vehicle at the top of the hill.
While the actually ground-pounding done by those searching in the field can be fairly low-tech, the process by which the team members are called up and organized has moved up into the “cloud.”
According to Madera County Sheriff’s Commander Tyson Pogue, about 90 percent of the SAR missions for which the S.O. is called out — averaging about one per week — are resolved in short order and the public never hears about them. Someone led astray by GPS, someone stuck in the mud on a forest road with no idea where they are, or someone who has wandered away from camp and the family is worried.
With any such incident, the first order of business is to do what is known as a “hasty search.”
“We get deputies out there to do a quick search of the most likely area,” says Cmdr. Pogue. “We check cars, buildings and the immediate area so by the time everything is mobilized, this area is already cleared. A large portion of cases are resolved in this phase, because the person generally hasn’t had a chance to go very far.”
While that is going on, the Incident Commander – nearly always Cmdr. Pogue – is busy determining what resources he will need and making those contacts. That’s where the technology comes in.
It used to be that Cmdr. Pogue would call Sgt. Wilder, who would call a couple more people, and the process of a phone tree would begin. That used up a lot of valuable time repeating the information and finding out if people were available. And as Cmdr. Pogue explains, “time equals distance.” When a three-year-old child is missing, they can wander ever farther away as time ticks by, expanding the search area. Finding someone quickly bolsters the chances of a successful recovery without injuries and with fewer searchers.
Now the Sheriff’s Office uses a platform called Everbridge wherein the Incident Commander can determine what skill sets and types of equipment he or she will need – Type 1 or Type 2 searchers, 4x4s, snowmobiles, rope teams – and just click a box. Everyone receives the same message nearly instantaneously and responds the same way citizens do for MCAlert, letting the I.C. know if they are available. They can be contacted by cell, home or work phone, text or email, and can also do a conference call if necessary.
A platform called WebEOC (Web-based Emergency Operations Center) then serves as a “white board” to track the incident. WebEOC also allows the S.O. to grant access to outside agencies such as Cal Fire, Forest Service, CHP or other Sheriff’s Offices. As a situation expands, this allows anyone coming into the incident to have access to the system for tracking developments, the command structure, what resources have been committed and what’s been done so far, so that everybody knows what’s going on in real time.
During Saturday’s mock search, equipment for communication between search teams and the command post was the responsibility of Lynn Fullmer and son Ryan, both veteran MADSAR members. They ensured that field radios were in good working order and that each team was checking in with the base at regular intervals.
As is often the case, this type of volunteerism runs in families and community groups, and I was not surprised to learn that Makenna Hunziker, 19, daughter of Cal Fire Bass Lake Station Captain Mike Hunziker, was among the new MADSAR members. She had completed her EMT training under Bill and Gina Hartley of Minarets Medical Education and Sierra Ambulance, and one year ago to-the-day Makenna had passed her registry to become an EMT. Gina Hartley was also a MADSAR trainee on this day, and Makenna and Gina trained the 2016 Academy class in CPR and First Aid.
Academy trainees ranged in ages from 17 to “seasoned citizens,” and included two Yosemite High School students who signed up even before they graduated. Tanner Meeks turned 18 in March, and Will Boyer, whose father Lance is a Type 1 MADSAR team member and part of the technical rope team, will be 18 in June. Trainees can participate in the Academy with written parental permission, but are not sworn in or called up on an incident until they turn 18.
These volunteers also come from a wide range of backgrounds. Ryan Simon is a 25-year-old Oakhurst resident who is going through the application process to become a CHP officer, and finds the SAR training to be a good fit with his chosen career path. He never missed an hour of class, even after his wife gave birth just two days before a training session, says Team Leader Mike Perreira.
Cliff Talley, 37, is a former ESPN reporter who returned to Chowchilla to take up the family farm and ranch business. Having done a lot of long-distance hiking with his wife, including a recent 30-mile trek in the Andes Mountains of Peru at nearly 14,000 ft., the physical part of the SAR training “wasn’t a big deal” for him.
All the volunteers we talked to were of one mind — they want to give back to their communities, and the camaraderie was the best part of the Academy.
“As we went through the training, everyone began really developing a good team mentality,” says Cliff, “helping each other when you’d see someone struggling. Everyone stepped up. The things you learn are not only important if you’re into hiking or out in the backcountry, but for life in general.”
Maria Lazaro is an R.N. and 36-year-old mom who may have had the toughest road to graduation. She started a job working a 12-hour graveyard shift at Madera Community Hospital on Friday, Saturday and Sundays, shortly after the Academy started, and somehow found the fortitude to power through long training days between shifts.
“It was very much worth it, and I would do it all over again,” she says. “Integrity, purpose and public service mean so much to me, and I want to pay it forward and try to help in any way, shape or form that I can with the skills I’ve been granted and the training I’ve picked up.”
After landing her new job at the hospital, Maria assured team leaders Mike and Brenda that regardless of her other commitments, she would give 110 percent.
“I got to work with really awesome people from all walks of life and all backgrounds, and I got to be a part of something great,” she said of the training. “I didn’t want to let that go.”
Among those MADSAR veterans in the orange shirts who were there to observe and assist as necessary, was Dave Ficklin, age 65. Dave was born and raised in Madera, and after retiring from his job as an Electronics Engineer at Stanford Linear Accelerator Center in Palo Alto, he and wife Laura Unti returned to the county. Upon seeing an ad for Search & Rescue volunteers, he decided to lend his skills in amateur radio and technical rope systems to the team, and went through the Academy two years ago.
After successfully completing their mission for the day, the searchers returned to the Command Post to enjoy a hot meal prepared by Madera County Retired Bass Lake Patrol Deputies Roger Kendle and Bill Grzybowski. The “chuckwagon” in which lunch was prepared is the result of many donations, smart purchases of used equipment, and lots of hard work by volunteers.
Before breaking for lunch, Academy leader Mike Perreira acknowledged the group for all their hard work and success. He also thanked them for the $240 in gift certificates to REI, presented to him and wife Brenda – also an Academy team leader. Perreira asked for the group’s blessing in passing on their gift to the next class of trainees in the 2018 Academy, helping to mitigate some of the financial requirements those folks will face. That suggestion was met with enthusiastic applause and everyone loved the idea of “paying it forward.”
Perreira also has a message to anyone out there who feels that this type of service is something they want to do.
“I’d like everyone who reads this article to know that, if you’re willing to work hard and make the time commitment to attend our Academy, there will probably be a place for you on this Team; our last two classes ranged in age from 17 to 68. Attitude, experience and character are valued commodities on our Team, and you will get outstanding training by our staff of volunteers and Sheriff’s deputies. We’ll be accepting applications for the 2018 Academy beginning in the Fall of 2017.”
All new volunteers who have been through the MADSAR training will become team members pending results of background checks by the Sheriff’s Office and the F.B.I.