They save hikers from hypothermia, find children lost in the wilderness, pick stranded explorers off dangerous cliffs — and they do it all for free.
The Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue Team, an all- volunteer branch of the Santa Barbara County Sheriff ’s Office, is dedicated to wilderness emergency rescues in the region’s backcountry. They are highly trained, well-equipped and not paid a penny for their work.
“[The team] is made up of people who have the desire to volunteer time with no direct acknowledgement or compensation,” Nelson Trichler, the SBCSAR’s public information officer said. “These are Type A people good with the outdoors — intense, self-motivated and strong-willed.”
Members are trained in high-angle rock rescues, downed aircraft situations, swift water rescues, vehicle collisions on mountain roads, medical emergencies, specialized equipment usage and other operations.
The team comes from a variety of backgrounds and maintains a high level of expertise through rigorous training.
According to Rescue member and apprentice Incident Commander Bryon Bass, members prepare at least two times a month and must sign off each year on a full skill set.
“It does not matter who you are,” Bass said. “You might be a world-class mountain climber in your spare time, but everyone has to sign off in the major skill areas. That means that pretty much anyone on the team can be put in a role and be able to execute. It is not just about versatility. You are constantly challenged; you have to go back and refresh the basics and you will always be learning and practicing advanced skills.”
According to Trichler, the team is largely self-sufficient and organizes itself without administrative support from other county organizations, although many members take part in other careers.
“We do our own administration, our own public relations, our own recruitment, training, equipment managing and fundraising,” Trichler said. “It can be difficult balancing this at times. Our employees have other jobs, projects or family matters and aren’t always able to respond when their pager goes off.”
Despite personnel’s multiple commitments, Trichler said the team’s 40- to 50-member staff manages to accommodate around 80 to 100 calls annually. Members are on-duty 24 hours a day year-round and can receive pages at any time for a rescue lasting anywhere from one to several hours.
As Bass demonstrates, Search and Rescue members take their duty to the community seriously. He owns an archeology and anthropology consulting company and while he faces an upcoming deadline for his clients, he can switch gears at the drop of a dime the moment his pager goes off — any day, at any hour.
“Of course there is a sense of fulfillment we get in making a difference, helping people in need and getting them back to their families,” Bass said. “I would also say, though, that it is about obligation. The county relies on us. It doesn’t matter if it is 2 a.m., 38 degrees in the Santa Ynez Valley or if it is a workday. When we get a page that a hiker needs to be rescued or a little boy or girl has gone missing, it is not something to be taken lightly.”
Rescue member Rick Stein, a retired former business owner, remains involved in SBCSAR as an apprentice Incident Commander, search dog handler and director for team training in Peru. Stein said the opportunity to help people is ultimately what binds the team together.
“Being active on the team is very commanding time-wise and you have to be willing to make sacrifices,” Stein said. “I would not call it a frustration. It is a fact — the nature of the beast. We would not be doing this if there were not a more positive outcome to compensate for it. The opportunity to make an impact in someone’s life is huge.”
Although its members volunteer their time, joining the team is an exclusive, lengthy process. Stein said members are required to remain physically fit and possess a desire to help, the ability to take direction and the capability to think creatively about how to apply their skills.
The application process begins with a recruitment meeting and application form, followed by a team interview and in- depth, confidential background check.
Applicants then go through a three to six-month academy to learn basic skills — from “mantracking” and electronic direction finding techniques to rappelling and ropes work — necessary for the team. According to Stein, regular training and new recruits’ academy time help forge a tight-knit bond between SAR personnel.
The group has specific, mandatory techniques and systems to keep the procedures as consistent and safe as possible. Bass said they strive to represent “unpaid professionalism” rather than “volunteerism.”
“The team is not like you raise your hand and pass out
cookies,” Bass said. “The whole process is challenging. I have a background in climbing and mountaineering myself, but when doing rescues, there is a set way to do them. Our point of going down the rope is not to have a giggle but to access the subjects, get them back up and, if necessary, give them medical care.”
SBCSAR is one of over 25 certified Mountain Rescue Teams in California. Certification entails a three-year process testing the group’s proficiency in rock and mountain rescues, search function management and snow skills.
According to Stein, the team takes pride in maintaining its certification as a MRT each year.
“Our degree of training and commitment to it is what I feel makes us stand out,” Stein said. “To be current with the certification, the skill sets you must have are a little bit higher. Santa Barbara County is very diverse and we have the highest number of [Search and Rescue] calls per year in the whole state. Because we’re so active, we must keep our skills up and constantly be training and improving to maintain our proficiency.”
SBCSAR is also involved in Project Lifesaver, a program that provides timely responses in cases of missing adults and children with Alzheimer’s, autism, dementia and other related conditions.
Trichler advises UCSB students to take wilderness training programs, research the areas in which they plan to hike and bring adequate supplies such as water, extra layers of clothing, a flashlight and GPS or map. A list of hiking tips is available on the SBCSAR website, www.sbcsar.net.
“Generally, people tend to take the wilderness for granted,” Trichler said. “Be prepared and take the right equipment. If you don’t know, ask.”
As Santa Barbara County’s last line of defense, the team knows that their efforts and dedication must be paramount.
“I’m not a philanthropist, but I think it is important to give back to your immediate society,”Bass said.“Frequently on rescues and searches, there is nobody else after us. It is not like you can say, ‘Oh, if the SBCSAR guys can’t do it, we’ll get someone else.’ There is no one else. A state team can arrive maybe three weeks later, but when it comes to immediacy, the buck stops at us.”