Volunteers are a special breed. The unsung heroes who help keep civilization humming, some deserve extra recognition for the risks and self-sacrifice they take on our behalf.
Among them are search and rescue volunteers.
The search and rescue program in El Dorado County is made up of both a West Slope and a South Lake Tahoe team. The public got a dramatic view of what search and rescue volunteers do when two cross-country skiers were stranded in a blizzard for two days in Tahoe over Presidents Day weekend.
But SAR volunteers get involved in all kinds of life-threatening situations, according to Sgt. Moke Auwae who is a supervisor in the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office of Emergency Services, the agency that oversees the SAR program.
In the first quarter of this year the West Slope team went on 13 in-county searches and four out-of-county searches. The South Lake Tahoe team has aided in eight in-county searches and one out of county.
Auwae said the South Lake Tahoe team usually runs more missions than the West Slope team. “People come from the Bay Area and go hiking but because there is better cell phone coverage (in Tahoe), the South Lake Tahoe team’s missions run six to 12 hours whereas West Slope team missions may run 36 hours to seven days because if someone gets lost (on the West Slope) it’s harder to find them because cell phone coverage is not as good. So on the East Slope we rescue and on West Slope we search,” he laughed.
El Dorado County SAR had a tally of 120 volunteers the a quarterly report was done and on average have between 100-150 at any given time. Some have been in it for 30 years and others come and go after a few months, according to Auwae.
“Many of our volunteers are retired or own their own businesses, which is why they are able to devote so much time to this program,” he explained. “We also have several Intel employees and others like Aerojet who encourage volunteerism and allow their employees to use some of their work time to do this.”
A program with a long and interesting history, Auwae said in this county it started out as the Sheriff’s Posse, where ranchers and cowboys would get on their horses and go out looking when someone went missing. It has continued as a volunteer program overseen by the sheriff’s department, although the requirements and training have developed and changed over the years.
Today almost all SARs in California have to be run through the local sheriff’s office or be vetted through the state Office of Emergency Services.
Training and typing volunteers
Very proud of the local SAR team, Auwae said its motto is “So others may live,” adding that while volunteers are willing to risk their lives for other people, deputies coordinating the searches don’t want the volunteers to risk their lives unnecessarily.
General requirements to join SAR include going through a brief background check. Once vetted, the program has a 50 percent rule so volunteers have to make 50 percent of the missions, 50 percent of trainings in their discipline and 50 percent of monthly meetings.
“What we do is not always safe,” he said. “We don’t deliberately send people into danger but hiking at 11,000 feet … or riding an ATV is dangerous. So we want to make sure the person’s skills are current.
“We have a high expectation of how they will represent the sheriff’s office and that’s how we’re able to maintain our reputation that El Dorado County has,” he continued. “We’re well-respected in the state. We have one of the larger SAR programs in the state and we’re one of Northern California’s go-to teams for SAR … Volunteers are an amazing resource for the county and for all practical purposes are free for the county, so we don’t want them to get hurt.”
To prevent that, volunteers first have to attend a basic academy before being allowed to go on a search.
The training, which is free to SAR volunteers, starts with what a search looks like, what the volunteer’s responsibilities are, how to talk on a radio, crime scene preservation and basic first aid. That’s the minimum.
Someone who is going to be a field asset then goes to the intermediate academy, where they are trained in wilderness survival, navigation, how to survive severe weather and advanced wilderness first aid. After that volunteers can be on whatever team or teams that they want but the 50 percent requirement applies to each team.
With seven teams making up the county SAR program, each has different training requirements. Teams include ground, four-wheel vehicle, mounted, canine, swift water, technical rope and search management.
The training then leads to assigning the volunteers according to their skill set and equipment they can use and carry.
Volunteers start out as a Type 4, which Auwae called an urban searcher and is someone who walks on concrete or asphalt. “But in our terrain you need some with significant wilderness skills to work for us,” he said.
A Type 3 is foothill searcher or day hiker. That person has to carry a 24-hour backpack and have the skills to stay out overnight if they can’t be extracted.
The majority of ground searchers are Type 2, which means they can hike at elevations of 8,000 to 10,000 feet.
Type 1 are alpine and snow trained. This involves the toughest conditions and longest stays. A person has to carry a 72-hour pack and have a higher level of first aid training, which usually means they are EMTs or have had wilderness first aid training.
“We don’t require a physical,” Auwae said, “but do require is a fitness hike where they have to use the skills they have learned in class.”
All searchers Type 3 and above carry a GPS device so deputies can track how well the volunteers have covered an area. Those GPS readings are then downloaded and compared to see if another team needs to go out.
“We also train them to look for clues and how to use the GPS to mark the clues,” Auwae said. “We put all that information on a map and then create a plan so we can be efficient with searches.”
In the case where various agencies and SAR volunteers were looking for the two women lost in the snow, they had help from Type 1 SAR volunteers from throughout the state.
Jason, the man who helped rescue the two snowbound women in Tahoe, is one of the highest trained volunteers. “He’s qualified to go in blizzard conditions, our highest peaks and has the skill set to survive in country for 72 hours because we may not be able to extract him for that time period due to weather,” Auwae said.
The largest search in the state’s history was in the aftermath of the Camp Fire, when more than 600 volunteers looked for the remains of those who died in the blaze. Auwae, who was one of the searchers, said it was done over a 14- to 16-day period with different crews rotating in for a few days at a time.
The dogs of SAR
One of El Dorado County Search and Rescue’s teams is made up of dogs and their owners who train together two or three times a week.
The dogs belong to volunteers but are trained according to standards set by the California Rescue Dog Association. Their owners are also trained and have to meet the same basic requirements as someone on a ground team.
Coming in all sizes and breeds, SAR dogs include terriers, schnauzers, golden retrievers and German shepherds. Auwae said one of the most successful dogs is a terrier mix named Pip. “They are prey-driven and that’s what you want from a search dog,” he explained.
Because of the varied nature of the work, the dogs are trained for different kinds of missions including ones that involve travel in a helicopter.
Search dogs are trained to look for people and others are trailing dogs that can follow a particular scent. Some specialize in finding decomposing bodies. A subset of cadaver dogs are those trained to find dead bodies in water.
Auwae said two finds were in Lake Tahoe using cadaver dogs where the bodies were hundreds of feet below the water. The dogs could detect the bodies because when they decompose they give off gas and as the gas rises, the dog can smell it.
Another mission of the SAR program is education. SAR carries out training programs in different ways and for different groups. One program for kids teaches children who get lost in the woods to hug a tree and wait for someone to find them rather than wander since that makes them harder to find.
Another program is aimed at getting young people interested in law enforcement by incorporating the sheriff’s explorers program into SAR.
The El Dorado Search and Rescue Council, an independent nonprofit, helps raise awareness of SAR as well as fundraise to help cover the cost of specialized training for volunteers or specialized equipment such as that used by the tech rope team.
“These people are highly dedicated and sacrifice quite a bit to be prepared,” Auwae said proudly, noting that volunteers are called out at all times of the day or night and they all do it on a voluntary basis with one motto in mind, “so others may live.”