Answering the Call
May 25th, 2018 by Denise Porter

Russ Patton, right, a volunteer with Klickitat County, Washington, search and rescue, consults with fellow volunteer Fred Henchell during a training session on rope rescue.
Photo by Beth Schroder

Search and rescue volunteers provide critical emergency response

On a given day, Russ Patton can be working as a project engineer for Klickitat PUD in Goldendale, Washington, or he could be called out to help rescue a stranded hiker on nearby Mount Adams.

“It’s hard to describe how good it feels when you go on a mission and it’s successful,” Russ says, explaining why he volunteers with the Klickitat County Search and Rescue Team. “It’s the best feeling—to go out on a search and the team finds a person.”

Russ recalls one rescue that had him hanging off a cliff helping a young lady who had fallen and injured herself. She was safely rescued.

Russ has three grown children. He says two incidents when they were younger led him to become a volunteer search and rescuer.

First, Russ was leading his son’s Boy Scout troop on a hike up Mount Adams in Yakima County when they got lost and needed some expert advice.

“I knew someone who was in search and rescue,” Russ remembers. “We didn’t know what to do, but we got ahold of him and he advised us.”

Another time, Russ’s pre-teen daughter went on an unauthorized hike, as he calls the incident, and she needed search and rescue to find her.

Having been on the receiving end of needing assistance, Russ says he knew there is a need for helping people. He decided to be one of those people and attended his first search and rescue meeting. He has been with the team 10 years.

More than 2,000 miles north, Robert Hoffman, 66, of Bethel, Alaska, remembers from his teen years a winter when a local young person became hypothermic while out hunting with his dog and sled team.

The youth passed out in the frigid cold onto the seat of the sled and would have died if the dogs had not pulled him several miles home to “his Mama’s front steps,” remembers Robert.

Other times, lost travelers were not so lucky, and search teams were called out to help.

Today, Robert says he volunteers as a member of Bethel Search and Rescue because it is both customary and necessary for survival in his town.

“We do it as tradition because some day your blood may have the same problem, and you would want others to do the thing that you have done for them,” explains Robert, who became a member of the board of directors for Alaska Village Electric Cooperative in spring 2017. “A long, long time ago when people were lost or drowned, there was no other assistance but us, ourselves.”

Search and rescue teams are often called to locate people lost in some of the most rugged terrain in the country, says Landon Myers, who lives in Tillamook County on the Oregon Coast.

“You simply cannot run a successful search and rescue team without volunteers,” Landon stresses.

He spent 16 years as a forest patrol deputy and one year coordinating the county’s volunteer search and rescue team before taking a job as community relations coordinator for Tillamook PUD.

Responding in Rugged Terrain
The western United States has vast territories that make locating lost people difficult, Landon says.

“The Tillamook State Forest is 365,000 acres and encompasses several counties,” he notes, adding that the county’s patrol officers cannot cover the entire forest without assistance.

The search and rescue team in Tillamook has a dedicated group of 50 to 60 volunteers.

“In our community, the need is so great because of the influx of tourists,” Landon says.

Some of the team’s rescues involve area rivers or beaches, but most pertain to the state forest. Hikers, bikers, ATV explorers, horse riders and picnickers all love the forest.

“Because of what this place has to offer to the community, it almost invites visitors to explore,” Landon says, “but they are often unfamiliar with how dense the forest is here.”

The team Russ volunteers with covers Klickitat County in Washington. It is a varied terrain that includes the western mountainous rain shadow region of Mount Adams and desert terrain on the eastern boundary. River and hiking rescues are generally why the team gets called out, he says.

Search and rescue efforts in Bethel are generally because of the harsh living environment, and often involve local people rather than visitors.

A subarctic region located 400 miles west of Anchorage, Bethel, population 6,000, is the largest community in western Alaska.

“Here in our central area, there are 56 villages we call ‘Bethel,’” Robert explains. “Our region is quite vast. For many searches, we need to cover a lot of ground and a lot of water.”

The all-volunteer search and rescue team has 50 to 60 people who train in both land and water rescues.

The villages comprising Bethel dot along the Kuskokwim River delta, spreading out along the marshes and lands, following the river as it spreads its fingers into the Bering Sea. It’s a mostly treeless place, with no roads in or out of the area. To get there, a person either flies in or takes a boat, Robert says.

The river is long and wide. It spreads itself out into tributaries and small lakes, and serves as a main transportation route via snowmobile during frigid winter months. The waters provide boat passage in the summer months.

During winter, the distinction between river and ocean is hard to determine, with piles of snow blurring the boundaries. Add a good winter blizzard and the terrain gets deadly quickly and travelers easily get disoriented.

The changing seasons bring different dangers. During the spring thaw, “the ice is starting to thin out from the inside, not the top,” Robert says. “The ocean current wears out the ice like a file.”

One day the ice can bear the weight of a human. The next it cannot.

“We have members of the search and rescue go out daily to check the strength of the ice and the thickness,” Robert says.

Local radio broadcasts tell villagers if the ice is unsafe. If a person falls through the ice, he or she may never be found because the water is not crystal clear.

“It’s murky, so murky, and sandy 1 foot down,” Robert says.

That is because Bethel is on a delta.

Who are the Responders?
In Goldendale, Russ estimates the search and rescue team is called out to help an average of 10 times a year, although he remembers one year with more than 60 calls. Not all volunteers respond to all calls.

Every volunteer service needs recruits, and there is a place for anyone wanting to serve a purpose greater than self, Landon and Russ say.

Tillamook volunteers bring myriad skills. Some have trained for rope and cliffside rescues. Others train their horses to assist in forest rescues.

Not all volunteers are out looking for lost people. Search and rescue teams also need command staff, people with computer skills and those willing to help with fundraising, Landon says.

“Some people are really good with drones, and we’re seeing those incorporated,” he adds.

Russ says a person does not have to be a hiker or seasoned athlete to join a search team. Coordinating calls and relaying information is a critical task.

“We need people to answer phones and to be able to climb down cliffs, too,” Russ says.

The Goldendale group tends to assist in rescues that require special skills not offered in training to ambulance personnel.

“It could be an accident off a steep incline,” Russ says, noting his team is prepared for that.

Search and rescuers can be retired or working folk. Membership requires training as a first responder and 70 hours of initial instructional and training hours. Classes are once a week for 12 weeks, Russ says. Follow-up training happens at monthly meetings.

He says the group “feels like a family,” and trainings are fun.

In Bethel, Robert says, it is common for entire families to become part of the search and rescue organization, which strengthens public awareness of the role search and rescuers play.

People in the villages all turn out to assist when an emergency happens. Training begins with shared experiences and knowledge of the terrain.

How best to prevent accidents is passed down from generation to generation.

Youth volunteers are given age-appropriate tasks and learn through observation of adults, Robert says.

Volunteering is about a time commitment, Landon says, admitting that can be a challenge.

“You’re signing up to be called out at any time, day or night, 365 days a year,” Landon says.

Not every call requires a response, Landon stresses, and not every volunteer is expected to respond to every call. Work and family commitments must be taken into consideration.

The reward for volunteering on a search and rescue team is helping others in their time of need.

“To not only find the people, but to relay to the family that you’ve found their family member, I think that’s what makes it all worthwhile,” Landon says. “It keeps our volunteers going. It’s a great feeling.”

Most are not looking for kudos, but prefer to remain in the background, contributing to the community because they see it as the right thing to do.

“The one thing I’ll say about most of our volunteer searchers is they don’t really seek recognition,” Landon says. “They are almost like the silent partner.”

Interested in becoming a search and rescue volunteer? Contact your local sheriff’s office, which will put you in touch with local coordinators who can tell you the dates of monthly meetings and trainings.