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Volunteer interest in Santa Barbara Search and Rescue has grown since fire and debris flow

Interested volunteers attended a meeting at SB County Search and Rescue station
Beth Thornton
Interested volunteers attended a meeting at the SB County Search and Rescue station

Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue is an all-volunteer branch of the Sheriff’s Department, and lately the team has more applications than they have spots to fill.

At a recent meeting held outside at the Search and Rescue station, approximately 30 members of the community arrived early to see the training area with climbing ropes and rescue vehicles.

This was the last session to recruit volunteers before a new cohort is selected for 2022. The Santa Barbara County team is looking to add 10-12 people, yet there are far more applications and a waiting list.

Jim Frank, a longtime volunteer and incident commander, said that since the 2018 Montecito debris flow, interest in joining the Search and Rescue team has grown.

“We usually get just a few people at our recruiting meetings, but after the floods we had 200, and out of that we got some just superior team members,” Frank said.

He said volunteers must be physically fit and comfortable in the outdoors. Past experience is not required, but a strong commitment to teamwork is.

With an average of 120 calls per year, volunteers work with the Sheriff’s department and local police and fire to rescue hikers, mountain bikers and rock climbers. They also assist with wildfire evacuations.

Most of their rescues involve rugged terrain, but not always. On New Year’s Day, a 911 call prompted a search for a lost, at-risk adult in the city of Santa Maria.

In this case, the lost individual was enrolled in a nationwide program through Search and Rescue called Project Lifesaver. He was wearing a wristband that allowed rescue teams to quickly track his location.

“It took us an hour from the time we arrived in Santa Maria to the time we found him,” Frank said.

The application process for volunteers is a lengthy one that requires a background check and an intensive 6-month training program.

Kerrie Valdiviezo has volunteered with Search and Rescue for twelve years.

“I’m grateful that we’re able to help each other out; that we can step in and do that,” she said.

Find more information at SBCSAR.net.

Beth Thornton is a freelance reporter for KCBX, and a contributor to Issues & Ideas. She was a 2021 Data Fellow with the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism, and has contributed to KQED's statewide radio show The California Report.