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  Cover Story October 21st, 2010     


by lyle e davis

When your butt is in a sling and you need help and fast . . . chances are you want only the best to give you a hand.

You usually see and/or hear about them when some type of tragedy has occurred. A child is missing, a hiker has gotten lost in the desert, or in the mountains, a suicide has been threatened, an Alzheimer’s patient has wandered off into the wilderness, someone fell down a cliff and needs to be rescued . . . all of these tasks are likely assignments for the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue teams.

Sadly, we saw a lot of Search and Rescue teams in action recently, during the searches for Chelsea King and Amber DuBois . . . two missing North County women, who were later found, murdered..

A colleague who is a member of the Kiwanis Club of Escondido suggested the two Escondido Kiwanis Clubs (Hidden Valley Kiwanis Club being the other) join together and form a Search and Rescue Team to assist in crisis situations.

Good idea in concept, but it ain’t that easy, folks.

Ernie Cowan, longtime Escondido resident, former councilmember and Mayor, and well known journalist, has been a member of the Search and Rescue team, off and on, for 25 years. He doesn’t talk much about it. He only happened to mention it one evening while we were dining at his home with he and his wife, Katlyn. I had known Ernie for 30 years and had never known of his activity with Search and Rescue.

Once I learned of this background I managed to draw Ernie out and asked him to tell why he got involved and what were some of his more memorable moments.
“The most memorable moments usually involve kids. I can remember two separate instances, both involving six year old kids, both having wandered off into the desert at Anza Borrego with little more than a tee shirt on. We found each of them, probably within minutes, hours at most, of dying from hypothermia.

When you hand a child over to a parent and see the tears of joy and the happiness at retrieving a child who would have otherwise died . . . well, that’s pretty good compensation for what we do.”

Ernie joined in 1966, three years after the Sheriff’s Department formed the formal Search and Rescue Unit. He has invested a minimum of 100 hours per year training since, some years he’s invested as many as 800 to 900 hours of training.

We think of ourselves as unpaid professionals. The level of training, the hours of training, involvement in regular life and death situations, this is not something amateurs can do.”

One of the most memorable moments in my Search and Rescue career was when Chelsea King’s father came to one of our meetings and said . . ‘the night we determined Chelsea Ernie Cowanwas missing was the second worst night in my life; but when you guys showed up, you became our heroes.’ That meant a lot to all of us.”

Not all of the Search and Rescue Missions revolve around tragedy. Some hilarious events occur. One time, Cowan recalls, “we were looking for this guy who had supposedly gone out looking for his bicycle and was reported as missing. We found him all right. But he was with his girl friend for an illicit affair that he was keeping from his wife.

“We’ve searched a number of time for people who weren’t really missing. But it’s better to be safe than sorry. Another time we went looking for a guy on Palomar Mountain who was reported by his wife to be missing.

We found him, in his tent, sleeping. When we awakend him he said he was planning a trip to the Sierras and decided to spend the night on the mountain . . . but he had forgotten to call his wife. When he was transported back to the Command Post and saw all the people and vehicles there he said, “Are all these people here for me?

When assured they were, he asked for a few moments as his wife was one of those anxiously awaiting his return. He had some tall explaining to do. We stayed a discreet distance away to let them ‘discuss’ the matter.

Team members often get calls in the middle of the night. “One time back in 1973, the ASTREA helicopter was introduced to Search and Rescue. I got the now familiar middle-of-the-night call and was advised there was a physician, missing in the Anza Borrego desert. They had found his car. We responded, we all assembled at dawn. The chopper found his body in about five minutes. We thought, ‘whoa! Whey don’t need us anymore, now that they have the chopper. Well, we were wrong. We are most definitely still needed. There are weather conditions, all types of situations where a helicopter cannot replace us ‘ground pounders.’

Yet another memory stays with Ernie, to this day: “An illegal alien had walkedoff a cliff at San Onofre. We responded, found his body, packaged his body up for retrieval and placed him in the basked, ready to be hauled up to the top of the cliff by ropes. As we began the retrieval process, I happened to notice in the sky, a comet, flying through the sky . . .right over the outline of his body. I don’t know why, but that vision has stuck with me over the years. Just kind of a personal memory of mine.”

Clearly, Ernie had aroused my curiousity. He caused me to look into it further and begin some research. I found the amount of time and training one needs to invest to become a certified member of a Search and Rescue team member is mind-boggling. One doesn’t just decide to become a member of a Search and Rescue team . . it takes hours of training, considerable expenditure of both time and funds, as Ernie’s story will confirm. All Search and Rescue team members are volunteers. They not only are not paid but provide their own vehicles, fuel, and, often, supplies.

The county, through the Sheriff’s Department, provides infrastructure, mobile units, radios, maps, computers, and the like . . . but most of the Search and Rescue operation is volunteer based.

It all came about in March of 1963 when the San Diego County Sheriff's Department first formalized a search and rescue team as part of their Emergency Services Division.

Since 1963 the success rate for Search and Rescue stands at approximately 98% without being able to fully close the few "mystery" cases.

The Search and Rescue (SAR) Bureau has primary responsibility for all search and rescue missions involving lost or stranded persons within the unincorporated areas of the County as well as certain contract cities the Department services. Upon request from other jurisdictions, the SAR will respond to any other city, and occasionally, to other counties within the state under a mutual aid system. The Bureau also activates during natural disasters such as wildfires, flooding and earthquakes.

All SAR members are registered with the San Diego County Office of Disaster Preparedness as Disaster Service Workers. This registration enables the members to qualify for State Worker's Compensation benefits in the event of personal injury or death while on duty.

The SAR Bureau has maintained an outstanding record of safety for victims and members alike while engaged in SAR operations. The Search and Rescue Bureau is recognized nationally as being a well trained and qualified organization. The organization conducts a training academy recognized by the Sheriff's Department.

A Search and Rescue volunteer who has completed the Academy will have over 220 hours of Search training prior to responding to missions.

Today, the SAR team is comprised of 10 units of expertise, each specializing in particular skills, which enhance an operation. These units are Rescue (Technical and Non-technical), Communications, Canine, Medical, Logistics, Mounted, Motorized (4 X 4's and off-road vehicles), Training and Administration.

Their Mobile Command Bus is equipped with computers, printers, radios, plotting table, GPS systems, night vision goggles, television/VCR and maps, giving SAR the ability to operate and staff personnel on missions for days.

Currently, SAR has over 200 volunteers that contribute countless hours of their personal time. In excess of 20,000 man-hours and 250,000 miles in their privately owned vehicles are donated each year. In dollars and cents, this adds up to saving the county of San Diego $425,000 annually.

SAR says: "We are recognized and respected as a model organization having the confidence of the public. We have the resources and a dynamic working environment that attracts and retains highly competent employees. We are innovative and responsive to the needs of those we serve."

Let’s take a look at some of the units that make up SAR.

Probably the most visible presence of SAR is the Tactical Search Unit. Their mission is to provide specialists in tracking and navigation. This unit provides extensive expertise in ground search activities and provides support to other units during specialized SAR missions. The unit is responsible for training Bureau personnel on tracking and navigation skills and for teaching basic tracking and navigation at the SAR Academy.

The members of the Tactical Search Unit are major participants on field teams during actual missions. Because they employ no more than their own feet, rather than horses or motor vehicles, to traverse the terrain, they are often referred to as the, "Ground Pounders." Desert heat to mountain snow; from deep ravines to high ridges; through rugged canyons and heavy brush; up or down steep slopes; in daylight or darkness; the Tactical Search Unit members are prepared for field team assignments and leadership.

Members of the Tactical Search Unit are specialists in both tracking and navigation. Tracking is both an art and a technical skill. Members of the Tactical Search Unit are highly trained and skilled in preserving and assessing the PLS (point last seen) for clues and sign left behind by the subjects of a search and in determining a direction of travel of subjects. They specialize in discerning disturbances on the ground and in the brush to detect the slightest indication that a person has or has not passed through an area. They are trained specialists in both, "slow" or step by step tracking and "fast", or jump, tracking. They are highly trained specialists in the use of map and compass and GPS units to navigate through any type of terrain and can provide navigation support for any field team.

The Tactical Search Unit is responsible for monitoring and mapping the movement of field teams during each mission and providing this information to the Search Management Team.

Radio transmissions are monitored in order to collect navigation data, or map coordinates, as each team carries out their assignment. When teams return to the command post data is collected from their GPS units and downloaded onto specialized computer programs located on Mobile Command-1. An up to date record is maintained on the computer to indicate where teams are in the field, as well as to record a history of what search areas have or have not been covered during the mission. This data is plotted to provide detailed graphic representations of maps that are then used by the management team in the planning of the future search operations.

All members of the Tactical Search Unit are required to attain specialist certification in both tracking and navigation within one year of entry into the Unit. This is accomplished through training, testing, and mission experience.

Each year the Unit offers a course in Tracking Specialist and a course in Navigation Specialist.

The courses include both classroom and field training and are in addition to the basic tracking and navigation training received in the SAR Academy. After completing the Specialist courses the candidate must complete and document 20 hours of training for each of the two specialties. Mission experience is counted toward certification. Following completion of the training phase, the specialist candidate will be required to complete a certification trial, or test, to demonstrate successfully the skills of the specialty.

Overall the Tactical Search Unit offers an exciting opportunity to participate in demanding assignments on critical search and rescue missions.

By developing and utilizing specialized search skills; training with enthusiastic, highly skilled personnel; and being prepared to take on field team leadership responsibilities; members of the Tactical Search Unit are an active, integral part of the San Diego Sheriff's Search and Rescue Bureau.

Another highly successful unit of SAR is the Search and Rescue K-9 Unit which has been in existence for over 30 years. Teams are available 24 hours a day to respond to local, state and federal law enforcement as well as other public service agency requests.

Trailing dogs are trained to follow the path that a missing person has taken. Similar to traditional "tracking" dogs, these dogs require a properly preserved scent guide and should not be distracted by other people in the area. These dogs usually work on long leashes.

Trailing dogs most frequently work trails that are several days old. Area search dogs are trained to find any human scent in an area. These dogs work most frequently off-leash and can cover large areas. Search dogs can be helpful in a variety of situations in the wilderness, as well as in urban settings. Many of SAR’s mission-ready dog teams are also certified for water, cadaver, avalanche, and disaster.

It is estimated that a single dog team can be as effective as 20 to 30 trained human searchers in locating a missing person in a given time frame. Some of the factors that impact a search dog's ability to detect scent include air temperature, humidity, terrain, wind, and age of scent.

Dog handlers are continually updating their skills and knowledge and most participate in 50 to 100 hours or more of training and missions per month. Dog handlers must have all of the training required of other SAR members such as first aid, navigation, survival and man-tracking, plus special skills required to be a dog handlers.

There is an excellent video on dog handlers and their dogs on the Internet. Go here:


Search dogs are well-socialized animals and represent a wide variety of breeds from golden retrievers to bloodhounds and German shepherds. They are tested extensively for temperament and must be able to work independently and for long durations. Search dogs are exposed to a wide variety of conditions and are expected to function in almost any environment. Minimum dog training requirements include socialization, obedience, helicopter orientation, and search work.

As a team, the dog and handler must pass a series of search tests to become mission-ready. On average, it takes two years for a handler and dog to become mission-ready. Teams must participate in on-going training throughout the year, as well as annual re-certification.

In addition to dogs, SAR also has horse mounted units.

The horse/human partnership in a search can have many different and exciting dimensions.

The elevated position of the searcher can enhance the ability to see sign and track the subject. It also provides a wider range of view. The independent awareness of sound, movement and odor that a horse possesses can lead to the conclusion of a successful search. The speed in which a horse/human partnership can move will assist in covering outlying areas. This is critical to foot searchers in order for them to focus on a more specific area. The strength and power of the horse can be utilized for subject evacuation, canine rescue when needed, and movement of supplies to areas not accessible to vehicles. This partnership can be utilized for radio relay and observation posts.

Somehow, someone has to coordinate all of the various units while conducting a search. The Communications Unit fills this need. It is one of the most versatile units assigned to the Search and Rescue Bureau. The unit is comprised of both sworn Reserve Deputies and non-sworn Rescue Volunteers and Citizen Volunteers.

The primary function of the Communications Unit is to provide personnel for the operation and staffing of the Sheriff Department's mobile command post. This command post is called "Mobile Command One" It is a forty foot Thomas bus that is equipped with two radio dispatch consoles, mapping table, mobile data terminals, computers and other specialized equipment. It contains a Radio Room, Planning Room and Command room. This three room mobile facility becomes the heart of operations for the department whereever it responds. It can be seen on a wide variety of events. From local disasters and emergencies to assisting other agencies in law enforcement and related duties.

Helping to bring all of the SAR units together is the Logistics Unit which offers support to all aspects of the search function. It establishes a base command set up, providing traffic and parking control. Additionally, the unit establishes a safe landing zone for aerial support. In Logistics, individuals provide food service for all personnel via the Search and Rescue Mobile Field Kitchen. This unit is capable of serving approximately 200 searchers, three meals a day.

While on a Search and Rescue mission, there is a need for medical attention, not only for potential victims, the subject of the search, but Search and Rescue team members as well.

The primary mission of the Medical Unit is to provide trained medical personnel in support of Search and Rescue and other Sheriff's Department operations. Medical personnel respond in on-road and off-road environments using a variety of field vehicles (medical service vehicle, 4 x 4 utility and 4 x 4 quads) to provide basic life support (BLS) pre-hospital emergency care to injured victims or rescue workers.

Though SAR has, and relies heavily upon, both dogs and horses, they also have Motorized Units.

Members use their personal SUV’s and pick-up trucks to transport personnel and equipment in and out of search areas, in rural and urban settings. Included are 4x4 and 4x2 vehicles. They are also used for perimeter containment and can transport mobile repeaters to high points to increase communication capabilities. Utilizing their mobile, higher-powered radios, they can provide relay communications in areas where the field teams cannot contact the search command post.

To show how broad the training is, each SAR unit member goes through Rescue Specialist training. It is a 32-hour in-house class held once a year to teach the basics of rope rescue. The topics covered include anchor systems, hardware and software, knots and improvised harness tying, belaying, rappelling, raising and lowering systems, low angle rescue, litter tending, and the Incident Command System as it applies to rope rescue. The certification is good for one year.

Rope rescue involves an element of risk so there is a strong effort to minimize it through constant practice and repetition. The unit trains once a month in some element of rope rescue to maintain proficiency. During a typical training there will be practice doing victim pickoffs, litter work, rappelling, raising and lowering systems, low angle systems, etc.

There is a short 6-8 hour first responder class in how to access a subject down a steep embankment, such as when a car goes over a guardrail. The class covers gear, knots, improvised harnesses, anchors, rappelling, and ropewalking. Just enough so that a first responder can safely and expediently access an accident subject in steep terrain.

The San Diego Sheriff's Department Search and Rescue Academy is one of only a handful nationwide. Search and Rescue's Training Unit organizes and coordinates the Academy.

Academies are scheduled once per year and over 50 people from the SAR Bureau, as well as paid members from the department, will participate as instructors and assistants. In one way, many search and rescue applicants are similar to Law Enforcement applicants. They come to SAR with visions of sirens, flashing lights, headlines and, "film at 11:00." The Training Unit tries to channel the enthusiasm that all applicants bring and develop disciplined and dedicated searchers.

SAR Academies consist of about 30 students. These people come from any occupation you can name including blue collar, professional, medical, military and more. Some come to SAR because of an interest in Law Enforcement, but have found search work more to their liking. Others have channeled a love of the outdoors, or hobbies like backpacking and mountain climbing, into community service. Some others simply learn about the work in the news or from friends or co-workers.

Students attend classes on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and alternating Saturdays plus a couple of full weekends. They will receive approximately 220 hours of classroom instruction and "hands on" field training in a range of subjects. Topics included are: Introduction to the Incident Command System, Lost Person Behavior, Search Theory, Tracking, Land Navigation, First Aid and CPR, Traffic Control, Technical Rescue, Helicopter Operations, Crime Scene Protection, Interviewing, Hot and Cold Weather Survival, Radio Communications Theory and Practice, Wildland Fire Concepts and Safety Practices and Search Canine basics.

All that instruction is with an eye toward SAR’s main job - finding lost people. Upon graduation, the students will have the knowledge and skills of an entry-level searcher. It is the job of the graduates, working with their individual units, to expand knowledge in their specialties.

The Training Unit and committee also plan two "All Units" training venues per year, where the entire Search and Rescue Bureau comes together to sharpen skills, update qualifications and practice on a large-scale basis, the running of a search mission. Typically 70 to 90 people participate in the All Units sessions which can run through most of a weekend. An All Units exercise might recreate a past search mission or be entirely "fictional." It can include anything from downed airplane scenarios to high angle rescues with patient packaging and ground teams tracking "lost" adults or children. Personnel often find themselves testing their training and resourcefulness to do anything from extricating a trapped victim, to plucking an injured hiker from the face of a cliff.

Assets used during an All Units exercise include horses, 4X4's, tracking and trailing dogs, fixed wing aircraft of the Aero squadron, ASTREA, the Border Patrol's BORSTAR team, the San Diego Mountain Rescue Team, R.A.C.E.S., and support equipment such as Mobile Command 1 and the Logistic Unit's chow wagon.

Upon acceptance into the SAR program, and while awaiting academy training, most of the SAR Units offer an apprentice training program in which recruits can begin pre-training orientation towards a unit specialty skill. Apprentices can also participate in the field during regular Bureau activities on a limited basis to gain actual experience. Every actual search mission becomes, in fact, a training ground.

Once the recruit becomes sufficiently trained to enter the field, or serve in support roles, a wide scope of SAR duties are available. A phone call at 3:00 AM could take a SAR member to any portion of the vast 4255 square miles that comprise San Diego County. The call might be to search for a missing person or overdue hiker, to rescue a stranded hiker, to assist on a back country wildfire incident, to perform evacuation duty during disasters, or any number of calls where help is needed.

Virtually all costs associated with membership are borne by each individual member, Reserve and Citizen Volunteer alike. Compensation comes in knowing that you may have helped save a life, a good feeling for doing your civic duty and self satisfaction in belonging to an organization whose goals are for the common good of all of the citizens residing and visiting our County.


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