Saving lives in remote places
Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue can use your help
The Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue group actively goes on hundreds of missions and puts in thousands of volunteer manhours helping people. Pictured is an example rescue training. The group is now asking the public for help replacing a converted food truck it uses to feed crews while out in the vast expanse of Snohomish County.
For 50 years, they have answered when called and gone out on missions supported by volunteers with thousands of hours of training and specialties. The operations come at a price, though, and the nonprofit Snohomish County Volunteer Search And Rescue (SCVSAR) is looking to keep the outfit going through soliciting
donations, grants and time.
The Right Tools to do The Right Job
Perched on Taylor’s Landing above the Machias valley and a neck of U.S. 2, the base for the Search and Rescue group hosts a myriad of “the right tools,” carefully acquired over time, to do the right job: Searching for, oftentimes saving, and recovering people within the county through a partnership with the Sheriff’s Office.
The group is not paid by the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office (SCSO), but is deployed by the Sheriff’s Office for missions. It’s been a working relationship for decades, when SCSO search and rescue deputy John Taylor, after whom the SCVSAR base is named, connected the two for search and rescue missions.
The group became incorporated 50 years ago, but for almost 10 years prior was a volunteer-driven arm of the Sheriff’s Office.
Sheriff’s Office Lt. Rick Hawkins said this good relationship is a vital part of the county’s overall law enforcement
and safety structure.
“I can’t tell you how valuable they are — they are a great organization and a huge part of what we at the Sheriff’s Office need for special operations,” Hawkins said.
Hawkins oversees the Special
Operations Unit for the Sheriff’s Office. Sometimes those operations include recovering missing persons, wherever they might be located in the vast, diverse environments of Snohomish County — be it ravines, rivers, mountains, forests, and urban areas like the cities that pepper the county. The more rural-centric searches are where Search and Rescue comes in, with all the tools necessary.
“We have many teams with their specialties, assigned to units throughout the county,” group president Randy Fay said. “Every volunteer spends hours for training, certifications, to reach field status and we’ve always welcomed people from all sorts of backgrounds.”
SCVSAR is comprised of seven “units” divided by geography or specialty: Alderwood, Everett Mountain Rescue, Explorer, Marysville, Operations Support, SCSO itself, and a Snohomish unit.
The group hosts specialty teams within each unit such as trackers and climbers. The 4x4 team has volunteers who use their Jeeps and old Chevy Suburbans customized for getting through hard terrain. There’s a horseback team, and Project Care Track, for vulnerable missing persons. There’s a K-9 team, a mountain bike team, swift water team, and family support, which is to offer post-event counseling and debriefing.
There is also a largely popular and effective helicopter rescue team, but that is run by and funded by the Sheriff’s Office. Search and Rescue volunteers can get their training and certifications for helicopter missions, but it is done on their own time and dime.
The helicopters are kept in the hangars at Taylor’s Landing, with all the bells and whistles to make them effective from up high. Fay is the crew chief for heli-missions, commanding from the back chair of the Sheriff’s Office’s Bell Huey H-model helicopter. The dogs, and their handlers, also have to go through extensive training to earn their field status, to help search for missing people. The K-9 team was especially effective in the Oso Mudslide.
Each team, and the unit the team is under, has an operations budget for tools and training. Given the right tools for the specific job, the volunteers can always respond to search and rescue missions well-equipped.
The Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office helicopters are dispatched regularly for missions, with the volunteer group’s leader riding as a crew chief.
The Price of doing the
Every mission has a price, and takes a toll on the volunteer group. Each year, the volunteers respond to over 100 lifesaving missions, according to SCVSAR’s “2016 Report to the Community.” These missions logged 9,200 direct mission response hours and 20,500 hours of training, tallying up to 29,700 hours of volunteer service to the community, the report states.
All of this volunteer time saves taxpayers money, Fay said, because otherwise, search and rescue missions would fall solely to the Sheriff’s Office payroll. “We’re giving back to the community, with these missions, and saving the taxpayers money,” Fay said.
“We are a separate nonprofit, we are not funded by the Sheriff’s Office. The Sheriff’s Office appropriates money from taxpayers, through the county. But we take care of the bulk of our needs, with our own money.”
SCSO sergeant and 18-year SCVSAR detail Danny Wikstrom emphasized the financial aspect.
“The people that do the vast majority of the work for ground SAR and air SAR are the volunteers and we absolutely could not provide the level of excellent service without these volunteers,” Wikstrom said. “They are the lifeblood of Search and Rescue.”
“You have to understand, when I get called out on a mission, like in the middle of the night, I’m on
time-and-a-half pay because I am a county government employee. I put on my county-issued uniform, drive my county vehicle on county-paid gas.... but the volunteers, they do all that with their own money, their own gas, sometimes they have to use vacation time to
fulfill a mission, because a lot of them are working professionals with careers. They volunteer to help save lives or recover people because of their compassion. Dedication.”
The group’s annual operations budget is $80,000 for maintaining Taylor’s Landing, the tools and supplies replacement from wear and tear, food, gas, and other necessities to keep it all going. The Sheriff’s Office helps with SCVSAR’s vehicle maintenance costs, and has a few assigned deputies to the detail. Some missions are incredibly difficult, and SCVSAR also focuses on taking care of its volunteers while they do their work.
A big part of that is keeping them fed while out on missions. This is where the SCVSAR food truck comes in, although the 31-year-old GMC Value Van, which is a former SWAT vehicle, is on its last days of missions. “We are currently faced with — ‘how are going to replace this food truck?’ It’s still running,
but it’s failing and it is a critical part of our missions because it helps sustain our volunteers,” said Bill Buck, board vice-president and volunteer. The food truck goes out on nearly every mission. It was a vital part of the Oso Mudslide response because it spent nearly 30 days out with the volunteers.
The fundraiser amount to get a new food truck with the proper modifications is $120,000. So far, the group has $30,000 raised and $30,000 to go because there’s another $60,000 on the way from the Sheriff’s Office program because it’s a retired SWAT van that accrued vehicle replacement funds when it was part of the SCSO fleet.
The volunteer group responds to missions at all hours and is already seeing more missions come in for 2017.
They see this as a tell-tale sign of the times to come this year and already spend hours gearing up for missions yet to be called. In the last few years, Fay said, there has been an increase in urban missions, such as for missing elderly persons or children. Still about 70 percent of the missions send them to the rural, deep areas of the county, where subjects such as lost hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts can be most susceptible to
the wild elements. Search and Rescue’s specialty teams traverse these elements to conclude a rescue.
“Planning is very complex and we are engaged with
each team every step of the way,” Fay said. “Because we train very often, it comes together even though our volunteers are a mixed bag (of specialties). Of the 300 volunteers we currently have, there are about 10 to 70 that make up the core group and it’s an incredible legacy that’s been formed by all the thousands of volunteers we’ve had these last five, six decades. We all want to help, we all want to save lives and to be a volunteer, it takes passion for your specialty and dedication through the hours and hours of training. We all want to get out there and help.”
This summer, SCVSAR will celebrate its 50th anniversary of incorporation and will host an open house for the public to attend at Taylor’s Landing. The base, which became operational in 2002, will boast not only its sprawling collection of training grounds, towers, courses and old hangars, but also all its tools, supplies and passionate volunteers for the public to get to know the men, women, and animals behind the search and rescue efforts.
The nonprofit welcomes people to visit their new website, www.scvsar.org and Facebook page, along with each special ops team’s Facebook pages.
“The more the public gets to know us, the better, so that they know who we are and why we serve,” Fay said. “And we will keep on going out to missions.”
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