By Emily Burns
Law enforcement agencies in San Diego County are getting help from the community. Volunteers with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department, city police departments, and independent organizations assist with everything from searches for missing people to sorting mail. These volunteers assist when more manpower is needed, allowing officers to focus on the most important tasks.
Sheriff’s Department conducts searches under varying circumstances
At a recent search for a missing Pine Valley, Calif. woman, more than 50 San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue Detail volunteers came to assist. They congregated at a command post where two ambulances and a mobile command trailer were stationed. Following radioed orders from search and rescue coordinator Sergeant Don Parker, teams searched the steep mountainside on foot, on horseback, with dogs, and on all-terrain vehicles.
The 150-member detail responds to search and rescue requests within the sheriff’s jurisdiction, and is often also called upon by the San Diego Police Department to assist with searches. The SAR team generally participates in searches for missing people or searches for evidence. However, each case is different and Parker ultimately determines whether or not to respond to each incident.
Volunteers from different organizations come together to search for missing people
Sometimes, the sheriff department’s own SAR team is not enough for complicated or spontaneous searches. Parker frequently asks affiliated and certified volunteer organizations to assist with searches.
The San Diego Mountain Rescue Team is one such volunteer organization. Founded in 1967, the group gets called out on almost every sheriff’s department search. The team primarily searches for individuals who are presumed to be alive, and goes on an average of 30-35 searches annually. When not on a search, the team trains in various weather and terrain conditions.
Similar to sheriff’s department volunteers, every mountain rescue volunteer must apply to the organization and undergo a background check before becoming a member. Parker said making sure members of affiliated organizations meet these requirements is crucial to the quality of the search and rescue operations.
“That is kind of a pivotal, key point, between search and rescue here on the West Coast, specifically in California, and other states. It’s a much more refined process,” he said.
The California Rescue Dog Association is the largest K-9 search and rescue organization in the country. Due to the large size of the Sheriff’s Department’s Search and Rescue Detail, CARDA members are not called to searches as frequently in San Diego as they are in other counties across California. CARDA dogs are trained in area or trailing searches. Trailing is when a dog follows the specific trail of a person, and area dogs are trained to find any possible scent of any person, on a trail or off. Area dogs are also trained to search for both living and dead individuals.
“This is not a dog sport – you don’t just get a title on your dog. This is not for ‘Fido,’” said Kathryn Stewart, a member of CARDA for almost five years and the organization’s public relations chair.
To become a member of CARDA, candidates and their dogs must successfully complete evaluations, a pre-apprenticeship process, and a lengthy apprenticeship during which an active CARDA member must sponsor the candidate and their dog.
Donna Sanford is now training her second dog in the CARDA program. Ceri, a Dutch Shepard, has a cadaver certification. Sanford and her husband Steve, who is also a CARDA member, have participated in multiple searches throughout California. Sanford said that the thought of what they might find always makes the searches challenging.
“Each time it’s unfortunately gotten easier, but no time is ever easy. You always have in the back of your head, we’re dealing with a human being, we’re dealing with a person,” Sanford said.
Senior citizens volunteer to help keep their neighborhoods safe
59-year old Dan Smoot and 75-year-old Shirley Johnson have both been participating in the El Cajon Police Department’s Retired Senior Volunteer Patrol for one year. Smoot joined after the program was recommended to him while he was participating in the Citizen’s Police Academy. After he joined, he encouraged Johnson to do the same. The two, now partners, are both passionate about community service and love working with people. Johnson also volunteers for the County of San Diego Grand Jury, the San Diego Superior Court, and her local neighborhood watch group.
The members of the El Cajon Police Department’s RSVP are all age 55 or older, and they patrol the neighborhoods, help with traffic control at schools, and sort the police department’s mail, among other tasks. Volunteers are required to attend an RSVP training academy and pass a background check. RSVP volunteers do not have sirens on their cars, they do not carry any weapons, and they cannot make arrests or give tickets for anything other than handicap placard violations.
The costs and rewards of volunteering
Volunteering for search and rescue organizations also requires a large financial and time commitment, regardless of the specific organization. The Sheriff’s Department estimates that each member will spend close to $500 on uniforms, equipment and training costs. San Diego Mountain Rescue requires members to own a large variety of gear, and members also pay annual dues. They expect members to pay anywhere from $500 to $800 each year. CARDA posts a breakdown of expenses on their website that estimates costs for first-years members being over $4,700. This money is spent on gasoline for personal cars, handler equipment, dog equipment, and membership dues.