It’s not enough that a search and rescue (SAR) team knows how to look for people in the wild. The team members also must be able to look out for themselves.
The months of training to make the grade concluded recently with Lauren Ling and other SAR candidates proving they had learned the skills to survive in the woods if the tables turned and a searcher became stranded.
“Building a shelter, starting a fire – these are basic things every outdoors person should know,” she said. “There’s a whole lot more to this, and I’m loving it.”
Approximately 130 people make up Spokane County’s contingent of search and rescue volunteers coordinated by Sheriff’s Deputy Thad Schultz. The Sheriff’s department has responsibility for all missing persons, he said.
The volunteers belong to four independent groups, including sledders and ATVers with the Winter Knights Snowmobile Club, young adults in the local Explorer Post and two search dog groups.
Ling chose the Inland Northwest SAR. “We’re the boots-on-the-ground for urban or wilderness missions,” she said.
“They’re the biggest group,” Schultz said. “The ground pounders.”
Qualifying for SAR requires a huge commitment. Training involved four-hour sessions in the SAR academy every Friday from late October through January, plus two 10-hour practical exercises followed by final testing that occurred on April 1.
“We hold the test in Riverside State Park and we set up the command post so they experience it before they show up for a mission,” Schultz said.
Out of 60 who started the training last fall, about 40 finished. “That’s a higher percentage than usual.” Schultz said. “Out of those people, 5 to 10 will likely become truly committed.
“It’s not as glamorous as some envision it. There aren’t as many calls as you might expect, maybe 7 to 12 a year. Last year we assisted with the aftermath of the Oso landslide and searches in the Cascades.”
Snowmobiling and hunting seasons have stood out in the past as the busiest times for search and rescue, but Schultz says awareness and technology have contributed to reducing those calls. “Snowmobilers have better machines,” he said, and GPS devices have helped get people out of the woods.
“The majority of our local missions are looking for Alzheimer patients or troubled children, but we still get calls to find people who are simply lost in the woods.”
To stay on top of their skills, SAR members meet to train once a month. They also sign up on their own for additional training such as technical mountain rescue.
“They can check out a GPS and radio, but everything else they need is on their own, including the backpacks,” Schultz said. “They get pro deals, but it’s still not cheap to participate.”
Ling, 33, who recently moved to Spokane from Colorado, is a snowmobiler and a hunter. “I’ve always been interested in search and rescue and I figured this would be a good way to meet people,” she said.
She especially liked the navigation and survival training and is looking forward to advancing her training for certification in avalanche, high angle and swiftwater rescues.
“We need to have state certifications to deploy anywhere in Washington,” she said.
Final testing covered skills such as navigation, first-aid, search techniques, patient transporting. Her pack contents were checked to assure they met requirements.
And, finally, when she built a solo overnight survival shelter, started and fire and succeeded in bringing a cup of water to a boil, she was in.
“I learned a ton of stuff,” she said. “The academy is really well-rounded. I got an understanding of how to approach first-aid situations. We were hands-on learning wilderness skills.”
Learning and refreshing her knowledge of map and compass and GPS greatly expanded her wilderness comfort range.
“A lot of people don’t acquire those skills,” she said. “I guess that’s one of the reasons we have search and rescue.”
As a snowmobiler, she’ll not only carry avalanche beacons, shovel and probes, she said she’ll also understand better how to use them.
“These are technical skills some people might have acquired, but if you’re not practicing, you lose it.”
Many people have a personal reason for making the SAR commitment, and Ling is no exception.
“A good friend of mine’s father went missing outside of Boulder when I lived in Colorado,” she said. “The community got involved in looking. He was never found. But the fact that there were so many boots on the ground gave my friend comfort. She really appreciated the people who tried. I want to be one of those people.”
As of this month, Ling is certified and on call to serve the community.
“I was really impressed by the volunteers who ran the academy,” she said. “They are very organized and effective. I didn’t expect the training to be on such a grand scale.
“And I certainly met good people. If you’re into the outdoors, these are the kind of people you want to meet.”