Volunteer search and rescue teams dedicate time and money

January 27, 2012 8:17:49 PM PST
Budget constraints are especially tough on public agencies right now. Police and fire departments across the state are coping with layoffs and cutbacks, and volunteers who help with search and rescue are now having to spend their own money to do it.

Alameda County Search and Rescue Chief Ron Seitz and Captain Frances Roelfsma know what is like to spend long days and sleepless nights outside with a search dog as your closest companion in search of a missing person.

"I think in the end it's most people with a common, good where they want to help the community, provide a service, and give something back," Seitz said.

Like the search for Hassani Campbell who was five years old when he went missing in Oakland's Rockridge neighborhood two years ago. It's a high-profile case that has yet to be resolved, and there are others.

"There's a lot of things that go on that never hit the news," Seitz said. "We go out and find people and nobody ever hears about it, and so forth and so on, because that's what we do."

Alameda County's Search and Rescue Team works out of the sheriff's department, but the 70 members are all volunteer. That means a commitment of time and a considerable amount of money.

"To stand up an average search and rescue member today it's probably about a thousand dollars in basic gear," Roelfsma said.

And much more than that for people who need specialized equipment like scuba divers or dog handlers.

"There's fun ways to spend money and there's ways that are not as much fun, and dogs are your partner so spending that kind of money doesn't bother me," Roelfsma said.

However, she's been doing it for 20 years. Volunteers who want to start dog handling can now expect to spend $1,500 to $2,000 a year. For the prospective search and rescue volunteer who has been laid off or had hours cut back at work, that amount of money can be the difference between having a roof over your head or not.

That's why it's easy to find people who want to volunteer, but finding people who can is another story.

"Economic times being what they are, it's even more of a challenge because of the costs and so forth and the fact that people don't have the free time that they have available from their jobs and their home lives to be able to commit," Seitz said.

There are no hard numbers available on people who want to become search and rescue volunteers but can't because of the economy. If finances are shrinking the pool of prospective volunteers, they are not having that effect on the caseload.