Posted by: James Wapotich | June 30, 2012

Trail Quest: Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue

Founded in 1962 Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue provides highly trained volunteers for search and rescue services throughout Santa Barbara county, primarily in non-urban areas. And while some of us are familiar with them in the context lost or injured hikers you may not be aware of how extensive their training is or how dedicated the men and women are who make up our local Search and Rescue team.

Members often put in a several hundred hours a year of volunteer time between training, actual calls and administrative responsibilities. They are trained to respond to vehicle over the side accidents, swiftwater rescues, airplane crashes and emergency locator transmitter recovery, and a wide range of natural disaster scenarios. As well as lost, injured or overdue hikers, mountain bikers and other outdoor recreational users.

“Santa Barbara has some major urban areas, but once you get out into the backcountry, you realize that much of Santa Barbara County is wilderness and National Forest. And these are places that many of the other agencies don’t have the resources to get to. We’re here to fill in the blanks.” Valerie Walston, SBCSAR Public Relations chair told the News-Press.

Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue is one of the busiest Search and Rescue teams in California, typically amongst the top three in terms of number of calls. On average SBCSAR responds to between 120-140 calls each year. Calls can range from locating overdue hikers to assisting and providing mutual aid in the event of natural disaster such as the 2005 La Conchita landslide.

Santa Barbra County Search and Rescue members regularly train in a variety of rescue scenarios to hone their skills. Trainings are conducted twice a month and often take place on our local trails or in the backcountry, sometimes in the same places where they’re called out for real emergencies.

I recently saw the team in action at one of their trainings at Gibraltar Rock, the popular rock climbing place along Gibraltar Road. Team members practiced lowering a member in a litter or Stokes basket down the face of Gibraltar Rock, rappelling, and pick-offs. For the pick-offs one of the team members would climb down to a particular ledge and play the role of a stranded hiker or rock climber and another team member would then rappel down to them, attach them to their rope and take them down to safety. This same technique was used recently to rescue a mother and daughter who were stuck near Painted Cave.

During each of the exercises I was struck by how the team members were essentially placing themselves in challenging situations and through regular practice acclimating to them, in order to then be able to help or guide people who by accident find themselves in a similar situation. And that’s what you want when your plan goes awry, someone who can guide you back to safety.

So what are some of things you can do to not need their services? The best thing you can do is be prepared. On their website,, SBCSAR has a well-crafted list of hiking tips that includes what to bring. At the top of that list is know where you are going. That is take the time to familiarize yourself with the area you’re visiting and what to expect and plan accordingly. Also let someone know where you’re going and when you’ll be back.

Of the items on the list of essentials to bring, three worth emphasizing here are water, cell phone and flashlight. In hearing the various stories of lost hikers there are several common themes. One is people becoming lost or disoriented on a trail and running out of water, particularly during the summer. Make sure to bring plenty of water, and if you bring a dog make sure to have enough water for your dog as well.

In this day and age a cell phone is essential for obvious reasons. However before you get to thinking that a cell phone is just as good as being prepared, bear in mind that while we have pretty good cell reception on our front country trails, once you get into the backcountry it is far less reliable. That’s not say you don’t want to bring one because a cell phone can also serve other purposes. At night even the small amount of light coming from a lit cell phone screen is often more than enough for search and rescue personnel using night vision googles to locate you, particularly from a helicopter.

The third item is a flashlight. Many of the stories of lost or overdue hikers involve hikers starting late in the afternoon and then running out of daylight. It is easy to misjudge the time it takes to hike a trail and sometimes a reliable flashlight is all that’s needed to finish one’s hike unaided.

If you do become lost, they suggest that if you can track yourself back to a location where you can absolutely identify where you are then do so, otherwise stay put. If you are somewhere you have cell phone reception dial 9-1-1. If not and you can safely climb to higher ground where you might have better reception then do so and try again.

When you talk to 9-1-1 tell them briefly where you are and what the situation is. “And then basically stay off your phone, because either our sheriff’s coordinator or one of our team leaders is going to call you back and gather more information. A lot of times we get a fair amount of information and can even determine where you are, and maybe even talk you through how to get out. Particularly with people with smart phones as they can often tell us their exact location.” adds Jim Frank, SBCSAR Incident Commander.

Recently there has been some debate publicly over who should pay for search and rescue services and when, should the people being rescued have to cover any expenses incurred? “Our policy is we don’t charge, because where would you draw the line. An emergency is an emergency.” Ms. Walston said.

Santa Barbra County Search and Rescue is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization and all of its members are unpaid volunteers. Members are responsible for their own personal equipment and on average spend upwards to $2,000. SBCSAR does receive some funding from the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department, which helps to cover fuel, vehicle maintenance and some equipment expenses, but much of their funding comes through grants from private foundations as well as donations from individuals and businesses. To support SBCSAR go to their website and click Support the Team.

If you’re interesting in joining Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue, the best place to start is also their website, as it provides an overview of what’s expected and what the process is. Some of the qualities that can make for a good Search and Rescue candidate are a love of the outdoors, a desire to help others and a willingness to take on new challenges.

SBCSAR provides extensive training for new members through their 6 month academy program. During that time candidates are probationary members and do not go on calls. If the candidate successfully graduates he or she then becomes a trainee and continues to build experience by going on calls and attending monthly trainings for another 18 months before then becoming a regular member. Currently there are about 35 members.

Santa Barbara County Search and Rescue is also available for presentations for local schools, groups and organizations and can be reached through their website.

This article originally appeared in section A of the June 30th, 2102 edition of the Santa Barbara News-Press.

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