How’s this for a job description? No pay (in fact, you’ll have to buy your own equipment, and it doesn’t come cheap), ability to push through mental and physical exhaustion, crazy hours, and willingness to complete two years of rigorous training before actually getting started. Oh, and assignments sometimes end in heartbreak.
Doesn’t sound like much fun, does it? Yet the people who do it say they wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.
They’re the members of the all-volunteer Alameda County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue Unit. UC Berkeley graduates Angela Chew Hale—an executive assistant for a commercial business park developer—Keith Young—who does research and development for a biotech company—and Randall Chinn— a software developer at Oracle—are among them.
If you’re a small child who has wandered away from home, or a plane crash survivor on a lonely mountaintop, or a hiker who has lost your way in the wilderness, they’re your best friends.
All of them are cross-trained in various skills to increase redundancy, but each has his or her own specialty, too. Hale is a dog handler, working with her German shepherd, Kona, to trace the person’s scent and narrow the search area.
Young is a flanker or “ground pounder.” Once Kona has indicated the most likely place to search, he and other flankers pound the ground until the person is found.
Hale and Kona are usually first on the scene because they set the stage for all that follows.
“When we arrive we are given a map, and whoever the agency is, a police department or whatever, will brief us with a description of the missing person,” Hale says. “We ask questions like are they afraid of dogs, will they answer to their name being called, and what is their favorite candy or cigarettes. The type of shoes they’re wearing is very important because we’re also tracking the type of sole. Also, in some Alzheimer’s cases they’re going backwards in their minds. They might think they’re going to work 30 years ago, or to where they used to hang out, so we need that information, too.”
Then they go to work.
“The first thing I do is check the wind, because you want to work into the wind …so the scent is coming toward the dog. Someone could be hiding, and if the wind isn’t coming right at him he won’t pick that up.”
“Scent conditions change with the time of day and the temperature,” she adds. Rain is good; it holds the scents down. But heat is not because heat kills scent.”
Rescue dogs come in two types: area dogs like Kona, who work off-leash and are trained to locate any human scent in a large area, and trailing dogs, who work on-leash and are given a scent article to sniff to locate a specific person.
“It’s a game for him. They get a reward at the end, either a toy or food…We train on positive reinforcement.”
After two years of intensive training, featuring ever more difficult mock rescues, she and Kona had to pass a final exam: find up to three people (they weren’t told how many were out there) in 100 acres of unfamiliar wilderness.
“You have to be able to navigate a map and compass and know where they are anywhere in those 100 acres, so you just can’t wander around. You have to have a strategy.”
And working in wilderness areas isn’t always comfortable. “I’ve had poison oak and ticks more times than I can remember. Literally.”
There are a few man-made hazards, too. “There are a lot of marijuana groves out there, and there are a lot of traps, so we have to watch out for those.”
But she still prefers it to working in urban settings
“When you’re in urban situations you have intersections, with scents going all over the place, and you have to do turns with changes of direction. The scent will be blown onto bushes, so you get a false trail. And there are a lot of hazards for dogs, like rat traps, poisons, and antifreeze. We’ve worked a lot of homeless encampments, and there are a lot of biohazards there. We also have to worry about homeless people with weapons. That’s why we always announce ourselves first, so they know we’re coming and are not a threat to them.”
After she and Kona have pared down the search area, then the ground pounders arrive.
“You have to be very methodical. It’s all about the probabilities of detection, says Young. “How can we arrange ourselves to maximize the probability of finding the person?…So the command post makes up a grid and assigns smaller, bite-sized chunks to each search team: ‘This is your map, this is your search area, you’re looking for this, and these are the things to be aware of.'”
Another important factor is the terrain. “If there’s really tall grass, we’ll need to be spaced closer together. If it’s a golf course, we’ll be further apart…If you throw all your resources into spot A, you can’t search spot B or C,” explains Young
And they have to make sure they don’t become victims themselves. “For example, we were in Niles Canyon a couple of weeks ago, and there was an unbelievable amount of water in the creek. A searcher could easily have fallen in and be swept away. And In this weather we also have to be careful about dehydration. And, of course, your compass and GPS skills have to be really good. You don’t want to get lost yourself.”
The initial search can take an hour to two, depending on all the variables. “We sweep through the area however many times it takes, then we go back to the command post and debrief. They need to get a written record of what we did and the things we observed. Maybe we found evidence like an article of clothing. Then we’ll have lunch, and then they send us back again to hit another spot. Meanwhile, the command team is putting together a picture so they can start narrowing things down: ‘OK, the dogs got more hits in this area; maybe we’ll go out again and concentrate there.’ It’s a process of elimination.”
One of their handiest tools is the smart phone. “We have an app that will trace our steps and overlay them on a map of the area. Back at the command post, they can watch me walking around in real time and tell me to go in this direction or that. When we find a piece of evidence, we can take a picture and text it back to them. I can call an investigator at the command post and he or she can say, ‘that’s not significant’ or ‘that’s what the victim was wearing last time he was seen.'”
Randall Chinn is a ground pounder, too; in fact, he often leads search teams because of his extensive experience. “The command post gives you a strategic position, but [I] have to make the tactical decisions about where to go. And we have limited time because this could be an emergency. You could have wasted a half hour, and people could have perished. There’s a lot of thinking in effective ground pounding.”
Chinn is also a rope rescue specialist. If somebody is trapped on a ledge of a sheer cliff, he’s the guy who is lowered down the side to reach the victim and bring him or her up to the top. But he feels safe because he knows the rope system has passed the whistle test.
“You could have four or more ropes in service,” he explains. “What if you were to let go one of them? Those systems should still be able to function. There are backups here. The whistle test tests those backups. When everyone’s ready we load the system, putting weight on it; and when I whistle everybody lifts their hands off the rope. Nothing should fall. I could be hanging a foot off the ground, but when they let go, I shouldn’t move.”
Chinn discovered search and rescue when he was camping with his daughter in the backcountry of Yosemite. Suddenly, an unexpected thunderstorm blew up, but that didn’t bother an experienced outdoorsman like him.
“I know how to make a raging fire in the rain,” he says. “So we’ve got this beautiful fire going and we were happy again, and all of a sudden the Yosemite search and rescue guys come along and show me a picture and say, ‘Have you seen this guy?’ I thought, ‘If I were ever lost and didn’t know how to make a fire, I’d hope somebody with survival skills would come along and find me. Maybe I should go see if I could join some agency where I live.’ So I looked online and found the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department Search And Rescue Unit, and here I am.”
And he draws on his long outdoors experience on every mission. “It’s something about the way my brain works. I can visualize mountain draws and ravines, things like that, and I have really good spatial awareness. Combine the two, and it helps me to be comfortable in the forest in the dark. I can stop thinking about my own personal self and think about the person we’re looking for and my own team. The more skills you have in your toolkit, the more comfortable you are. So there’s always the desire to acquire new skills. You can’t say, ‘Oh yeah, I learned that.’ You need to be ready to go in the dark when it’s raining and people are waiting for you. You need to be part of a team.”
But the work isn’t over when the victim is located. “You find a person. Then what?” says Chinn. “They might need medical help. So we practice emergency first aid. We train for mass casualty incidents, fires, earthquakes, bus crashes, it could even be an active shooter. Lots of people bleed out after an active shooter, so we do a lot of training in how to stop mass hemorrhaging, either through stuffing the wounds or homeostatic agents or tourniquets.”
But what if the injuries are too severe for first aid to be of help? “I remember what one chief said when I was still a recruit. He said, ‘There are EMTs and paramedics who will almost kill themselves to get to you to help the victim.’ I thought, “This is the kind of organization I want to belong to.'”
The job gets even trickier when they rescue someone from a cliffside ledge. “Before we can bring them up, we have to package them so we can transport them back. Also, there’s often a trail of evidence that has to be retained. It could have been foul play. So we have to be very aware so we don’t contaminate the scene.”
And there isn’t always a happy ending. “I remember one Christmas a few years back when we found someone who had taken his own life. We also represent the coroner, so our guys helped remove the body. I don’t know why he took his own life, but when we went back to the roped-off public area there were dozens of cars and 60 or 70 of his friends hoping we would find him alive. That was very sad for us. You go through this whole range of emotions: We’re happy there’s closure, but you can really feel what this thing is about. There are cases when we never find them, and that’s even worse.”
So why do they do it?
“I am involved because I enjoy learning new skills from training, being able to enjoy nature in various wilderness locations, sharing experiences with teammates I respect, and strengthening the bond of love and trust I have with Kona, says Hale” Although not all searches end with live finds, we hope to bring closures to families.”
“If I were a relative or friend of the missing person, I’d want him or her found. That kind of closure would bring me a huge bit of peace of mind,” says Young.
Chinn remembers their success stories.
“A few weeks ago, we were in the middle of a forest looking for a lost person and her dog,” he says. “She had slept for two nights in that forest and was completely lost. She was located, and I set up a rope system to bring her up. In my small group I must have been working with rescuers from four different agencies. Although we did know each other or train with each other, we all knew what had to be done; and in a few minutes we worked together as a team to help this person and her dog. Both she and her dog turned out to be OK. A set of strangers with all the desire to learn and help others prevented what could have been the worst day of her family’s life. And we had made all the difference.”
In addition to rescuing people, these three members of the Alameda County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue Unit have made a sacrifice for journalism.
“One of our traditions is to avoid being in the press,” says Young. “If any of us are captured in a news segment, or a newspaper or magazine article, or even a picture, that person has to buy ice cream for the whole unit.”
Oh well. At least the expense will be split three ways.