Rescue team needs help, jury says

The county’s search-and-rescue team is understaffed and underfunded and needs more government aid or, in lieu of that, permission to hold fundraisers, according to a civil grand jury report.

The report said the search-and-rescue team (SAR) should double in size from its current 50 volunteers.

In their report, grand jurors sketched a portrait of a dedicated and important band of volunteers that is being nickeled and dimed.

Among the many duties that search-and-rescue volunteers perform, the report notes: searching for missing people such as lost hikers or Alzheimer’s patients who have strayed; helping law enforcement locate evidence; providing medical help at the Oceano Dunes; and helping with swift-water and off-road rescues.

Most volunteers have specialized training as emergency medical technicians, dispatchers, or physicians’ assistants, or with mountain bike rescues, or use of 4x4 and all-terrain vehicles.

Volunteers have designed and conducted training that exceeds national standards, the grand jury writes.

In some of the state’s 58 counties, the report said, paid Sheriff’s Department employees do this work. In San Luis Obispo County, the all-volunteer force handles it.

They are not paid, and many buy their own equipment and uniforms and pay for their own training.

There is some money for the team, and volunteers receive reimbursement for mileage, the report notes, but the money flow is erratic and insufficient.

County funding for SAR is currently combined with two other volunteer units — the dive team and the sheriff’s posse, grand jurors wrote. This year, there was $35,227 in net expenditures to be divided among the three.

The State Parks Department used to give SAR $1,000 annually for its work in the Dunes, but has stopped because of budget cuts.

A shortage of money “prevents SAR team leaders from attending some advanced training … which would provide valuable additional knowledge and expertise.”

It also makes response time longer, the report said.

The SAR team cannot hold fundraisers without the permission of the Sheriff’s Department, the report says, and the department told the grand jury that it is “unaware of any unmet needs.”

Sheriff’s Department management also said “the number of SAR callouts does not justify sending out a specific vehicle.” SAR responded to 25 requests for assistance in 2008 and 17 in 2009.

The grand jury recommended that the Board of Supervisors provide equipment and uniform allowances; if they do not materialize, it said, the Sheriff’s Department should allow SAR to hold fundraisers or solicit money and sponsorships.

The grand jury also recommended that the county get the State Parks Department to contribute.

Finally, jurors recommended that the search-and-rescue team seek volunteers adept at grant writing, website development, fundraising and public relations.