Grand jury: Rescue team needs money

The Sheriff’s Department has rebuffed a grand jury report that states the county Search and Rescue team needs more money and should be allowed to hold fundraisers.

The department said, “There is currently no funding deficiency,” and the team should not try to raise money independently, because that could fragment a cohesive approach to funding that is now coordinated through the sheriff.

Furthermore, Sheriff Pat Hedges wrote in a report, the Search and Rescue team did not ask for money before speaking to the grand jury.

“Is anybody talking to anybody here?” Sheriff’s Department spokesman Rob Bryn asked.

It is clear from his response that Hedges felt blindsided by the grand jury report, which includes a description of the Search and Rescue team’s financial situation that is at odds with Hedges’ view.

In its report, issued last month, the grand jury described the team as understaffed and underfunded.

The county’s Search and Rescue team searches for missing people such as lost hikers or Alzheimer’s patients, provides medical help at the Oceano Dunes and helps with swift-water and off-road rescues.

The team responded to 25 requests for assistance in 2008 and 17 in 2009.

A majority of volunteers has specialized training as emergency medical technicians, dispatchers or physicians’ assistants, or with mountain-bike rescues or use of four-wheel-drive and all-terrain vehicles.

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

The volunteers receive no payment, and many buy their own equipment and uniforms and pay for their own training.

There is some money for the team, and volunteers are reimbursed for mileage, but the money flow is erratic and insufficient, the grand jury wrote.

Currently, county funding for the team is combined with other volunteer units, such as the Underwater Search and Recovery Dive Team, the Sheriff’s Posse, the Sheriff’s Aero Squadron and the Sheriff’s Auxiliary Volunteer Patrol.

In 2010, there was $35,227 in net expenditures to be divided among these volunteer units.

Fundraising is conducted through a nonprofit organization called the Sheriff’s Advisory Council, Bryn told The Tribune.

“The sheriff’s idea is to treat everyone the same and keep them all under the umbrella of the organization,” Bryn said. “It doesn’t make sense to go off in five or six different directions.”

Sgt. Mark Maki, who coordinates the Search and Rescue team for the Sheriff’s Department, referred comments to the sheriff.

However, volunteer John Wordsworth reiterated in a talk with The Tribune that “there are unmet needs.”

He said the team has been told by the department, “Don’t ask for anything.”

“We recognize there’s a recession,” Wordsworth said. Nonetheless, he added, new volunteers can spend $200 to $500 on uniforms and equipment.

Another request, this one to the Board of Supervisors regarding the state Department of Parks and Recreation, was also rejected.

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

The grand jury asked the Board of Supervisors to try to get the money back from the state to “subsidize rescue work in the Oceano Dunes.”

But the county found that request “not warranted or reasonable,” according to Leslie Brown of the county administrator’s office. The state is facing a financial crisis, she wrote.