New members of the Madera County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue team after taking the oath of office administered by Sheriff Jay Varney. From left, standing, are Justin Swanson, Gina Hartley, Freeman Wilfong, Cliff Talley, Will Boyer, Nick McBeath, Ben Catrina, Hailey Smith, Zach Stone, Lyn Bockmiller, Faustina Roche, Adam Wilkinson, Gabriel Mejia, Mari Davis, and Sally Wider-Reda; seated, Ed Gallegos, Art Hussey, Linda Cuthbert, Ryan Simon, Tanner Meeks, Gigi Cardoza, George Chinn, Laura Unti, Maria Lazaro and not pictured Lee Lang, Makenna Hunziker, and Bob Day. (Wendy Alexander)
It is a far too common story. A tourist goes for a hike in the nearby Sierra Nevada Mountain range that comprises Eastern Madera County, gets off the path and can’t find his or her way back.
When the hiker fails to return, a call is placed to the Madera County Sheriff’s Department, which activates its Search and Rescue Team. Hopefully the person is found and the story has a happy ending.
The nationally recognized and award-winning Search and Rescue Team is comprised of trained volunteers who methodically scour the surrounding areas, usually finding the missing hiker. Local people can get lost, too, especially those with medical issues, children and the elderly.
But who exactly are the members of the SAR team and what kind of training do they have?
“The Sheriff’s Department holds its SAR academy every two years,” said SAR team Commander Tyson Pogue.
On Friday, the graduates of the 2016 SAR academy were sworn in by Sheriff Jay Varney at the Sheriff’s office facility on Falcon Drive in Madera.
Comprised entirely of volunteers, prospective team members were required to complete a minimum 120-hour course split between classroom theory and field training. The candidates were given extensive background checks before the classes begin, said Pogue. The academy met three weekends a month at Minarets High School.
Classes include training of the incident command system, crime scene awareness, land navigation, basic rope rescue, helicopter safety, radio communications, search techniques, first aid/CPR, tracking, and basic survival skills.
In addition to the time commitment, team members purchase their own uniforms, hiking boots and much of their personal equipment, an expense that can be $500 to $600.
Additional training is offered for specialized teams certified to carry out recovery functions such as four-wheel drive, foot teams, underwater dive and swift-water, technical rope rescue, snowmobile, communication, medical, off highway vehicle, Operation Lost and Found procedures and canine teams, Pogue said.
This year, 50 people applied to the academy, and 29 of those made it through the rigorous training. The demographics of the graduates are 18 men and 11 women, 15 of who live in the San Joaquin Valley and 14 who reside in Eastern Madera County.
In 2014 the team graduated 20 men, three women, with six living in the valley and 17 in Eastern Madera County.