SAVING THE DAY : Search and Rescue Volunteers Find Excitement, Fulfillment

Times Staff Writer

George Berg, systems programmer for a supermarket chain by day and adventure-seeker by weekend, lay on his back in a rope and metal stretcher dangling from a five-story building--30 feet above the ground.

On the top floor of the building, half a dozen men snapped pulleys and ropes together and checked for tension. It was up to them to keep Berg from plunging to the ground. Lew Shaver hung in his own harness next to Berg, ready to assist him.

No one panicked, but an edge crept into their voices as first one man and then another suggested various ways to solve the problem of getting Berg and Shaver lowered to the ground. Finally, all was ready. In a scene familiar to rock and mountain climbers, the line was played out a few feet at a time, then "locked off" with a shackle, then let out a few more feet and locked off again. At last Berg and Shaver reached the ground. Both walked away smiling.

"It's a little unusual for me to be in the Stokes" stretcher, Berg said. "Because I'm used to being outside and in control." But wasn't he worried as the minutes stretched by and he was left dangling in air? "Actually, no, because I know these folks well, and I trust every one of them."

Besides, this was only an exercise--part of the training he receives as one of the 41 men and women who belong to Orange County Search and Rescue, a private, nonprofit, volunteer group whose members help police and fire departments, civic groups and just about anyone needing assistance in finding people and getting them out of trouble.

Their training exercises and rescues can take them from the concrete canyons of Orange County cities to the high hills of Southern California mountain ranges.

They have set up treatment stations for firefighters battling brush fires in Cleveland National Forest and helped fight the flooding that overwhelmed Lake Elsinore several years ago.

In recent months, the group beat the bushes alongside the Santa Ana River in search of 9-year-old Nadia Puente, who was kidnaped while walking home from a Santa Ana school and eventually found dead in Los Angeles, and took to the skies in an airplane and helicopter to find an Anaheim man in the desert near the Arizona border. With mere hours to spare, the volunteers flew the man back to receive a kidney transplant he needed to keep him alive.

"I thought they did absolutely a wonderful job," said Ann Breckenridge, donor coordinator for United Western Medical Center-Santa Ana, which in March asked for the group's help in finding Charles Ridgeway, who received the kidney.

Tony Miranda, a Santa Ana policeman who is also a Search and Rescue member and serves as the group's training officer, was involved in finding Ridgeway and getting him back to the county for the kidney transplant.

Miranda flew to the desert in the pre-dawn darkness with Bob Tur, a KNX radio reporter-pilot who is not a group member. When they arrived, they found that Imperial County sheriff's deputies and a Bureau of Land Management ranger had called off their search for the night.

"We got to Brawley and I said, 'Hey, we're here. Let's look for this guy ourselves if we've got gas,' " Miranda said.

"It was Easter Sunday and I thought it'd be quiet out there, with everyone home with their families," Miranda said. "Well, as it turned out, there happened to be a thousand trailers out there, and they all looked alike to me."

After broadcasting their mission over the chopper's loudspeakers, Tur and Miranda managed to find Ridgeway's son, who had driven to the desert himself to search for his father but got stuck in the fine desert sand. The younger Ridgeway directed Tur to the spot where his parents usually camped, and they found the elder Ridgeway.

Tur flew Ridgeway back to the Brawley airport, where Search and Rescue had a plane waiting for him. The plane flew the patient to John Wayne Airport, where Gary Stockdale, the group's chief, was waiting to drive him to Western Medical.

"It was after I got there that I started seeing all the desert and recognized how tough it was going to be," Miranda said. "But we just wanted to persevere. Thank goodness we did, because (Ridgeway) got his kidney, and the doctor said it was just in time. It just made my day--Easter Sunday and we managed to save a life."

Tustin Police Sgt. Chris George said Search and Rescue members are "well organized" and have helped her department search for missing persons without getting in the way of police.

About a year ago, "we had an elderly missing female, missing for quite some time during that cold snap we had," George said. "They came out, stayed with us through the night, combing the countryside for her. We wound up finding her the next morning when it became daylight. They really did a good job for us."

Ray Montoya, fire chief for the city of Orange, says the Search and Rescue group is "very well-respected throughout Southern California." He praised the group's training officers as people who know what they're doing and are good teachers.

Group members hold a variety of jobs. Stockdale is an insurance agent; two members are nurses; another two are policemen; three are Cal State Fullerton fraternity brothers. Volunteers say they share a desire to provide service to the community while enjoying the excitement of real-life dramas.

John Peterson, 37, the group's first assistant chief, said he had been interested in a law enforcement job since his high school days but eventually decided to become a plumber. He said working with Search and Rescue "gets me close enough to law enforcement."

The group is not officially sanctioned or licensed, though Stockdale said its members do receive cards identifying them as civilian assistants to Irvine police when they help that city search for a missing person. Also, some members are emergency service workers who register with the County Fire Department's Emergency Management Division, providing a pool of trained volunteers to tap in the event of a disaster.

Stockdale said he is unaware of any similar private group in California, adding that members of other search-and-rescue organizations he meets during combined training programs generally work under their local sheriff's department.

In Orange County, the sheriff has its own search-and-rescue unit and "just never had any need for outside people," said Lt. Richard Olson, the department spokesman.

Stockdale said the group screens members carefully: During a recruitment campaign 4 years ago, 186 people applied and 12 were accepted, he said.

Recruits have their references checked and are put through a physical agility test at the law enforcement training facility at Golden West College. The test includes runs up flights of stairs, leaps of high hurdles and a quarter-mile run. Then comes 6 months' probation.

Members pay $30 a year in dues and provide their own uniforms. Although the agency requesting help from Search and Rescue provides the insurance, members carry their own individual policies, Stockdale said. He said the group, which has a budget of $40,000 a year raised through fund-raising drives, is considering whether to pick up the insurance tab for members, which he estimated at a total of $15,000 a year for a million-dollar policy. Another protection is California's "Good Samaritan Law," which he said has so far protected anyone giving emergency aid so long as the helper does not do anything beyond his or her training.

Miranda said members try to "provide police and fire departments with whatever they happen to need at the time. If they need traffic control, we will go out and do traffic control."

Search and Rescue trains its members in wilderness safety, compass navigation, communications and traffic and crowd control. They are also required to take courses in advanced first aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation to be a full-fledged member. In addition, there are monthly membership meetings and monthly training sessions.

The volunteers also receive mountain search training.

"It's kind of difficult in the respect that we're not in a mountainous area," Miranda said. "But, of course, that's the reason most people joined, to get the real search-and-rescue training, working in the bush, in the high hills. . . . We try to give our members a full scope of what search and rescue is like and how we can work with other agencies."

The exercise featuring Berg in the stretcher took place in a gutted five-story building in Orange where the group holds many of its monthly training sessions and area fire departments practice rescues. The drill with Berg was designed to ensure that members could put an injured person in a stretcher and lower the victim to the ground from outside a building.

Stockdale said the skills being practiced in the training session were used several years ago when a young boy hiking in Silverado Canyon with his father got stuck on a hill and the father sprained his ankle so badly that he was unable to walk. Search and Rescue members carried the father out and hooked the boy up to a harness that allowed him to be lowered down the hill.

Stockdale, a Search and Rescue volunteer for more than 20 years, said the group seeks people who have done some type of community work, who have time to devote to Search and Rescue and who realize that, despite the seriousness of the job, "there's no pay, no gratuities."

"It's a hobby," he stressed, "something I do because it's something I enjoy."

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