Usually news reports mention them only in passing, something like this:
“The injured hunter was found this morning by a search and rescue team after being reported missing last night …”
Most people assume there’s a “search and rescue team” sitting in a fire station or sheriff’s office waiting for an emergency call.
While sheriff’s offices have staff to lead searches, most of the on-the-ground and up-the-hills effort is handled by volunteers who have skills and desire to help people in distress. They might be snowmobilers, ATVers, skiers, hikers, mountain climbers, equestrians, kayakers, radio hobbyists, teenage Explorers or owners of dogs trained for searching.
The Spokane County Department of Emergency Management coordinates roughly 400 people involved with search and rescue, and nearly 99 percent of them are volunteers, officials say.
Mike Nielsen helped organize the Priest Lake Search and Rescue in 2001 after a Thanksgiving incident involving two snowmobilers who were stranded high in the Selkirk Mountains.
“It was clear from that experience that we needed to be more organized,” he said. “Now we have more than 100 people in our group and about a third of them are from the Spokane area.”
Depending on the situation, a sheriff’s department might call on a specific group of volunteers, such as rock climbers, river rafters or civilian pilots, to carry out a specific mission.
In Ferry County, they might call on the 12 volunteers that make up the Ferry County Search and Rescue Team, which recently joined for two days of field training in the Colville National Forest.
They practiced search management and mission planning, winter safety and first aid, emergency shelter building, evacuation using rope belays, snowmobile safety and GPS training.
“Search and rescue is a life-saving skill that demands exceptional dedication, special training, and professional equipment,” said team spokesman Steve Anthes. “(We’re) trained in rural and wilderness environments and strive to be a well-prepared squad ready to respond any time – anywhere – that others may live.”