A grim scene was described in O’Neals.
Five Fresno State students were reported lost May 7, as they didn’t return from a scheduled wildlife survey at the San Joaquin Experimental Range.
That’s when the Madera County Sheriff’s Office called in its Search & Rescue Team (MADSAR). But this time, 29 rookie volunteers joined in for a ‘mock search’ to find the students, represented by two mannequins and three people.
The recruits, split into five teams to cover five 40 to 50-acre sections, combined compass navigation and radio contact to MADSAR veterans with a rough trek through tall weeds, rocky hillsides, running water, and a few rusty nails to successfully locate all the lost subjects.
Mike Perreira, who leads MADSAR and its academy with his wife Brenda and Ron Vargas, said he was impressed with their skills.
“They are very capable both physically and mentally to be highly successful,” Perreira said. “Time will tell.”
Pending approval through FBI and sheriff’s office background checks, the 29 members will join 93 MADSAR veterans - a group Sheriff Jay Varney said is critical for his entire office.
“Take people out in the snow this year,” Varney said. “Sometimes people bite off more than they can chew, or their GPS sends them someplace crazy, and it’s our 4x4 MADSAR volunteers who are able to go out and find them in freezing weather. Without them, every search would start hours later than they do now, and that would be extremely dangerous for everyone.”
The SAR team is called once or twice a week, Perreira said, for routine incidents usually not reported to the media, such as someone getting their car stuck on a mud road.
In a point regularly made by both veterans and rookies, becoming part of MADSAR is no easy task.
For most, time is the ultimate sacrifice.
“When you sign up for the Search & Rescue Team, you sign up to be inconvenienced,” said Chris Dorfmeier, who joined MADSAR in 2000 and leads its K-9 team. “You’re giving up your family baseball games, and your football games. Because when the call comes, you should try to answer it.”
Perreira said 50 applications were received, but five people didn’t show for orientation Jan. 9. After a three-hour session to describe 120 hours of training, held over 15 eight-hour Saturday sessions at Minarets High School, five more dropped out.
The total attrition rate is about 40% when MADSAR takes applications every two years, Perreira said.
“If people have families, and a full time job, this can take up a lot of time and you can start feeling some heat,” Perreira said. “The reality is you’re sacrificing a lot of your time.”
Along with that commitment, volunteers supply much of their own equipment such as compasses, rain gear, rope, flashlights, and a first aid kit with bandages and protective gloves.
The costs add up, whether days or dollars, but all volunteers who made it through final testing said the entire experience was worthwhile.
“I was kind of unsure what I was going to do for college, but this reinforced how this place is my home, and this is definitely something I want to be involved in,” said 18-year-old Tanner Meeks, a senior at Yosemite High School, outdoor enthusiast, and future mechanical engineer with a full ride scholarship to Fresno State. “You get to help people, make a difference, and save lives. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
Mari Davis, a Chowchilla dispatcher who previously worked as an emergency medical technician and paramedic, added the skills she learned would, if needed, help keep her 8-year-old son Eli and 1-year-old daughter Ella safe.
“There’s always sacrifices involved,” Davis said. “And this was definitely challenging. But to be able to help others, and be able to use what I’ve learned in the field is extremely important to me. A lot of lives have been saved this way, and I thought there wasn’t a better way to keep my feet in the area of helping others.”
Training included CPR, first aid, helicopter safety, navigation, tracking, survival, and fitness, Perreira said, which can prove invaluable throughout life.
“They’re all excellent things for them to know for their own safety, as well as their families,” Perreira said. “They know how to be prepared, how to react to chaotic situations, how to survive through difficult weather, all of it.”
Additionally, MADSAR’s strong sense of camaraderie was appreciated by all rookies.
“We’ve all gotten to know each other really well,” Davis said. “Being able to hang out, waiting for the next assignment, it’s been a lot of fun. You feel like you’re all part of something very important, and you’re in it together.”
In the field
After the five teams received their instructions at base camp, they were then transported by truck to their respective search section. Team Bravo, comprised of George Chinn, Art Hussey, Laura Unti, Adam Wilkinson, and team leader Gigi Cardoza routinely displayed the effectiveness of their training and a positive attitude as they planned their search.
Overseen by Lance Boyer and fellow MADSAR veteran Jay Ratliff, Bravo members began the search near a cattle barn they used as a landmark to help determine their location on a map.
As the five-member team spread out to trek down a nearby hillside to a creek, Cardoza regularly called out position checks to make sure their separation lines were intact.
After passing through several barbed wire fences - helping each other along the way - they eventually located their “student,” one of the mannequins, sitting under a tree.
The team first assessed the simulated student as deceased, then radioed base for further instructions.
After determining their location through compasses and triangulation methods, the team packed up and returned for debriefing sessions on how to improve their search techniques.
All 29 trainees were thanked by Perreira and several SAR veterans. In a show of appreciation, the rookies presented $120 gift cards to the Perreiras and Vargas. The Perreiras, in response, said they wished to pay their $240 gifts forward and help fund the 2018 MADSAR class, which was met with applause.
Free lunch was then provided by retired deputies Roger Kendle and Bill Grzybowski, using the sheriff office’s food truck that’s been in operation less than six months.
Back at base
Throughout the mock search, Sheriff’s Commander Tyson Pogue was inside the department’s mobile emergency services truck performing another vital service - cloud-hosted coordination for the operation.
Using online systems called Everbridge and WebEOC, used by the sheriff’s department since 2007, Pogue said his emergency staff, as well as others from the Red Cross, forest service, and highway patrol have the ability to monitor an incident and input their locations or other data to vastly improve response times.
“Think of all this like a very big white board,” Pogue said. “So if we have a fire, for example, we can track personnel and their activity, we can see what resources we need and where - it’s sort of like we’re all using this whiteboard to notify hundreds of people in seconds what’s going on. It’s absolutely critical technology for our office to have.”
Any emergency staffer with a device that has web access can use the programs, Pogue said, which then works with the county’s MC Alert system by sending out text messages, emails, or other communications on any incident in seconds. The MC Alert system is available to inform any county resident about fires, road hazards, and other incidents, with registration available at www.mcalert.org.
Perreira said the next MADSAR academy will be held in January of 2018, with applications taken in the fall next year.
Details: (559) 675-7700.
NOTE: For additional photos, see www.sierrastar.com.