By Kathleen Reynolds
Photos: Laura McCurdy & Gregory Made Photography, LLC
Napa County’s Search and Rescue Team (SAR) is on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The SAR team helps with searches, fire and flood evacuations and evidence recovery in all areas of Napa County. The team also assists search teams in other Bay Area counties as required by the California Master Mutual Aid Agreement.
The team’s mission is to locate and rescue victims in urban areas or wildlands, aircraft and boating accidents, and in natural or man-made disasters. To prepare for this, the team trains three times per month and must respond day or night in all weather conditions.
Believe it or not, the 40 team members are 100% volunteer and receive zero financial compensation for their personal gear or expenses.
“Often, our team members are outdoorsy-types, but there’s a broad spectrum of ages and backgrounds,” says Jason Abbott, president of Napa County SARS. “The one thing we have in common is that we want to help strangers.”
“In California, the Sheriff’s Department has the responsibility for the Search and Rescue Teams. It’s an amazing volunteer opportunity and, for those who embrace it, it will change your life.”
There is no average amount of callouts in a year.
“Sometimes we’ll have 30 callouts or five. So far this year, we’ve only had a handful, but they’ve been multi-day, perhaps five or six days in a row. For that we stagger our volunteers, so the whole team covers it.”
They helped with the fire evacuations of 2017 and sometimes they are involved in search and recover, rather than rescue.
“We worked two full weeks post-fire,” says Abbott. “That was a hard one as sometimes people don’t make it out.”
“Our most common call is a lost person, who can be in the city or the wilderness. It can range from autistic children who get frustrated and leave, to dementia in the elderly who’ve gone on the same walk a thousand times but take a wrong turn. Usually, a call comes in to 911 and is directed to the Sheriff’s office or the Police Department in town. A sergeant at the Sheriff’s Department will contact the SAR coordinator if our help is needed. We can be on site in an hour. The Sheriff’s office provides heavy equipment, such as ATVs, if necessary.”
Sometimes dogs are used.
“In wilderness situations where it’s needed, the dogs are trained to go into the open space and locate live humans; they’re good at it. The routine is the dog will return to the handler and bark, then lead the handler to the person.”
Abbott says these specially trained dogs come from organizations such as the California Rescue Dog Association (CARDA) or Monterey Bay Search Dogs (MBSD) and include German shepherds, Belgian malinois, bloodhounds and labs.
Many volunteers have been with SAR several years.
“We have two who’ve done it for 15 years, two at 10 years, quite a few people for five or more years,” says Abbott, who’s been with the team since 2016. “The calendar year for recruits begins January 1. We encourage interested people to come to a couple of meetings to see what it’s all about.”
“We have classroom trainings on the first and third Tuesdays every month in which we learn techniques such as software, mapping and navigation. Field trainings are monthly either on a Saturday, Sunday or overnight. During those we can focus on rope rescue, vehicle operation and practice sessions on different terrain.”
During extended session they may have mock searches and realistic drills. Volunteers hide and the searchers provide aid for injuries.
“We make those as realistic as we can. These are perishable skills, so we continue practicing them. The quality of our volunteers is very high,” continues Abbott. “Although most of them enjoy mountain biking, backpacking, hunting or fishing, some have never slept outside. When they do, it’s a personal achievement. Although we don’t typically sleep on the dirt, we do train for it.”
Team member Mike Dooley serves as the organization’s treasurer.
“I’ve been an active member since 2020,” says Dooley. “People are surprised to learn that a search and rescue team exists so we’re trying to raise our visibility. They’re also surprised to learn the amount of dedication and training that’s involved. Although there aren’t many nighttime calls, we can be called day or night.”
Abbott and Dooley both say that once people learn about the time, effort and financial commitment involved, they are amazed that SAR is a 501(c)3 non-profit.
Abbott added that a common misconception is that the team is funded through the Sheriff’s Department.
“The Sheriff provides many vehicles, classroom space and storage. The volunteers are responsible for all their own equipment. Typically, we haven’t had big fundraising events. We usually have direct asks or requests for sponsorship for specific equipment.”
“We rely on donations,” Dooley says. “A very simple way to contribute is through the “Smile” program at Amazon by naming us their preferred charity. We’re equipment intensive, so we must fundraise ourselves. We’re discussing different fundraising opportunities now.”
“If you see us training, come by and talk to us. We’re at Alston Park two or three times a year and we’re obvious to spot with all our gear. We encourage people to reach out and talk to us. We’ll explain what we do and why.”
Full requirements for new recruits are on the website napasar.org. Donations may also be made through the site. napasar.org
Want to join Napa County Search and Rescue? Here are a few requirements (for comprehensive list and explanations, see napasar.org):
• Know that team volunteers spend long hours training
& can be called out day or night in all weather conditions.
• Applicants must be a minimum of 18 years of age.
• Not all applicants will be accepted. People should apply
only if they can make a 2-year commitment.
• Mandatory trainings cannot be skipped or made up.
• A callout is often an all-day or overnight response.
• Must pass a criminal background check.
• Members provide all their own personal gear.
• Certification in Wilderness First Aid and CPR is required.
• Must be physically fit.