Unsung Heroes: Their job is to find the lost

When the 55 members of the sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team sit down to their Thanksgiving meal today, they’ll do so knowing there’s a chance — not a huge one, but still a chance — they’ll have to cut the celebration short.

That happened last Thanksgiving, when the team was called out to search for two missing off-roaders in Los Padres National Forest. The search had a happy ending: The men were found and delivered to safety.

In their typical fashion, members of the Search and Rescue Team took the interruption of their holiday with understanding and good humor.

“The reply was ‘No worries, we’ve learned to eat our holiday meals early for such times” said Sgt. Mark Maki, team coordinator.

Maki — the sole paid member of the team — told us: “I’ve worked with many different volunteer individuals and groups, and they are all great people doing great work. But none are 1) on-call 24/7/365; 2) will do dangerous work in horrible conditions; and 3) must maintain a high level of training that matches the military, law enforcement and fire service.”

The Search and Rescue Team has found elderly people with Alzheimer’s disease who wandered away from their homes; they’ve located missing hikers and hunters; they’ve searched for missing persons when foul play was suspected; and they’ve hunted for evidence in criminal cases.

The team is an eclectic group that includes college students, nurses, professors, secretaries, a chiropractor, a postal worker and a tax preparer. Members range in age from late teens — the minimum age is 18 — to 76.

Why do they do it?

“It’s an absolutely wonderful feeling. It really is — it’s absolutely gratifying,” said volunteer Eve Vigil. “People are really thankful that we’re out there and we’re able to bring closure to them.”

Eve and her husband, Sam, have been on the team since 1997. They got involved after joining a private search for a missing paraglider.

Later, they heard about the search for Cal Poly student Kristin Smart, who disappeared in 1996.

“We didn’t participate in that, but felt really bad that we hadn’t,” said Eve.

They resolved to join the Search and Rescue Team, and have been with it ever since. Their commitment led them to take EMT training at Hancock College, so they could be better prepared to give medical aid.

That’s not unusual; members often undergo specialized training to qualify for particular roles. In addition to the medical team, there is a canine unit that works with dogs skilled in tracking, a mountain bike team, a communications team, a technical team skilled at climbing and rapelling, to name a few.

While their backgrounds and skill sets vary, members do have at least one trait in common.

“These are people who, No. 1, all have very big hearts,” said Maki.

On this Thanksgiving Day, we salute all 55 unsung heroes who serve on the sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team. We hope no one needs their services today, but we can all rest easier knowing the Search and Rescue Team is ready to respond — 24/7/365 — in case someone does run into trouble.

Interested in joining?

To find out more about the sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team, contact Sgt. Mark Maki at 781-4616, or attend a membership meeting held the first Tuesday of every month at 7 p.m. in the auditorium at the Sheriff’s Honor Farm.