It's been more than five months since 37 Madera County citizens attended an orientation outlining the rigorous training schedule one would undergo to become a member of the Madera County Sheriff Department's Search and Rescue (MADSAR) team.
The orientation, presented Jan. 18 at Minarets High School by Sgt. Jim Bernardi, a 23 year veteran of the department and seven year MADSAR coordinator.
Bernardi was assisted during the half day orientation by 10-year MADSAR team leaders Mike and Brenda Perreira, Ron Vargas, and about a dozen other Search & Rescue team members and deputies. That afternoon was the beginning of 120 hours of classroom and field training for the dedicated volunteers.
Classroom curriculum included SAR management/incident organization, legal and ethical aspects, fitness, survival, safety, personal equipment, tracking, communications, search techniques, helicopter safety, rope rescue, and map and compass navigation.
In addition to their time, each trainee was responsible for purchasing the necessary equipment required, including quality back packs, walking sticks, a compass, and suggested protective gear all totaling about $500.
At the end of five month training academy, 23 of the original 37 prospects successfully completed the training and passed written and field exams.
The Search & Rescue version of "graduation," took place May 31, in the form of a "Mock Search & Rescue" operation on the 4,500-acre San Joaquin Experimental Range off Highway 41, five miles south of Coarsegold. Sheriff John Anderson welcomed the group and thanked them for their dedication and service on behalf of the citizens of Madera County.
Five search teams
The trainees were split into five search teams, each with a mission to locate a simulated lost person, while being closely monitored by a veteran team member observer. Each team was provided maps that outlined five different 45-acre search areas. Utilizing maps, hand-held Global Positioning Systems, compasses, and the skills they learned during training, the teams set-out over the dry, rolling hills to locate their subjects. All were successful.
Members of the state Military Department, including Randy Orpe of North Fork, participated with portable satellites that provide the command post with vital Internet service when in remote locations.
Another part of the operation was a portable communications room under the direction of Emergency Operations Lieutenant Tyson Pogue. Pogue and other department information specialists work with an information system called WebEOC that was implemented by Anderson in 2007.
"WebEOC is an management system that allows for real-time information sharing between emergency incident managers, command staff, first responders, emergency shelters, and other county departments during MADSAR activities or other emergencies," Pogue said. "It's an extremely versatile and powerful tool. We have even used it to stream live video during incidents allowing command staff to see first hand."
``Diverse and dedicated group of volunteers
Reasons for volunteers wanting to join the team are as varied as the volunteers themselves.
Ed Greene, who retired after a 30 year career with the California Highway Patrol, had numerous occasions to work with Search & Rescue teams.
"I knew they were looking for volunteers and were starting an academy training class back in January, "Greene said. "They only give this training every two years, so this was the perfect opportunity to become a volunteer, since I retired on Dec. 31, 2013.
Greene said he talked with a friend, Don Bartunek, about becoming a Search & Rescue volunteer.
"I was interested in riding one of the ATVs and Don was interested in the equestrian aspects of Search and Rescue," Greene said. "So we both both attended all the training classes, and it was great to have a friend going through the training together."
After 32 years of service with the US Postal Service (12 years as post master at Bass Lake, Coarsegold and Oakhurst), Kerry Abbott retired three years ago. Husband Tim worked for the postal service for 16 years in Auberry and Oakhurst, eventually retiring after serving Mariposa as post master for six years. Kerry said she has always had a personnel interest in the Search & Rescue mission.
After giving it a little thought, Kerry said she realized joining the team would offer her the opportunity to do something totally different from anything she had done in the past.
"It has also afforded me the chance to connect and develop camaraderie with a group of people over a shared passion for helping others in need," Abbott said.
Abbott said the 16 Saturdays of training was unexpectedly comprehensive.
She said the training was professionally presented and extremely well organized.
"The support offered by training leaders Mike and Brenda Perreira and Ron Vargas, along with other team members was beyond my expectations," Kerry said. "Their willingness to support the group in every way to ensure our success in the program was incredible."
Kerry ultimately realized her 'small' contribution, in combination with everyone else on the team, could result in the opportunity to save someone's life.
"What else could match the feeling of potentially playing a role in saving the life of a fellow human being," asked Abbott.
Madera County Road Commissioner Johannes Hoevertsz said he signed-up for the training to further serve and help the residents of Madera County.
"The five month commitment was well worth it," said Hoevertsz, who has been in the county road department 13 years (seven as commissioner). "The training team is world class. The diversity of experience among the recruits was an asset to the entire team. We learned excellent skills that I look forward to enhancing and putting to work to save lives and help rescue people as needed."
At 18, Amanda Miller is the youngest trainee to go through the training. Home schooled her entire life, she graduated high school online and has been working for West Coast Imaging since 2012.
An outdoor enthusiast with seven brothers, Miller loves to hunt, fish, hike, camp, and ride horses.
"I just love challenging myself and that was a big reason for joining the SAR team," Miller said. "I also wanted to join because I have the desire to do something to help people and this is a great way to do that."
Miller said the first couple of weeks of training was pretty intimidating, and being the youngest, she felt pretty secluded from the others.
"But as the weeks went by more and more people left and after a few weeks we had a solid group," Miller said. "It was a long haul, but the commitment was worth it."
Miller missed only one day of training, and that was when she accompanied her father Dave, who ran the Boston Marathon April 21.
Sheriff Anderson proud of team
Anderson said he made a commitment to professionalize the team about 15 years ago when the group was trained according to national standards.
Anderson told the group he would match the members of the Madera County Search & Rescue team against any in the state.
"I'm proud of our team for its skills, dedication and continuous training they undergo," Anderson said.
Bernardi said almost all teams in the state are now trained to the same standards.
"This is important, because when a mutual-aid call goes out, we are all on the same page," Bernardi said.
The current team consists of about 70 volunteers, with about 60% being Mountain Area residents.
There are about 70 current members on the team - about 60% Mountain Area residents and 40% from the Valley.
Perreira said it was due to the generosity of Minarets High School Principal Michael Niehoff and school secretary Patti Collins, that the entire academy, including classroom work and field training, was held at Minarets at no expense.
Once background checks are completed, the volunteers will be officially placed on the volunteer call-out list as needed.
"This group was the largest class to ever go through the training," Mike Perreira said. "The background of the individuals in this group made it clear from the start that they brought a lot of experience and intelligence to the training academy. All of this plus the training that they have received from more than 20 current SAR volunteers, will make them able to contribute to our MADSAR teams in the very near future."
The next training session will be held in early 2016, with applications being taken in the fall of 2015.
Anyone interested in joining the team, can contact Perreira, (559) 349-8903, or Sgt. Bernardi, (559) 642-3201.
New MADSAR volunteer
The latest group of volunteers to join the Madera County Sheriff Department's Search & Rescue team are:
- Tim and Kerry Abbott retired postmasters/US Air Force veteran
- Don Bartunek special investigator for the State of California
- Carol Bende retired police officer and investigator for the Bakersfield DA's office.
- Lance Boyer general construction management.
- Vic Bruno former sheriff's reserve deputy
- Dr. Jerry Chastain Kaiser Permanente
- Jerry Collins Captain, Madera County Fire Department.
- Rick Cooley retired Cal Fire Captain.
- Gary Delvin former US marine and school district administrator.
- Stephen Dougherty owner of Madera Veterinary Center.
- David Ficklin designer and engineer at the Linear Accelerator, Stanford University.
- Lynn Fullmer former reserve deputy,
- Madera County Sheriff's Office, and California state investigator.
- Ryan Fullmer owner, Fullmer's Appliance Repair.
- Frank Gilb retired after 20 year career with LAPD.
- Ed Greene retired 30 year CHP sergeant.
- Brian Hansen retired Cal fire captain.
- Johannes Hoevertsz Madera County Road Commissioner.
- Amanda Miller Yosemite High School graduate and youngest trainee at 18.
- Michael Medina nutritional science and dietetics technician, Fresno Economic Opportunity Council.
- Frank Mosca Army combat veteran and combat medic.
- Tim O'Connor US Forrest Service Hotshot supervisor.
- Tim Roche US Navy veteran, and O'Neals cattle ranch owner.
- Kenny Thome former US Marine, retired rancher and mechanic.