The Contra Costa County Search and Rescue Team completed 53 missions last year. Its 200-plus members aided 23 agencies on assignments in locales ranging from Point Reyes to Yosemite National Park.
They searched for missing persons and criminal evidence, extracted plants from illegal marijuana grows, provided medical aid and a host of support services.
And they did it all without costing taxpayers a dollar.
This all-volunteer group, including men and women of various ages from all walks of life -- a retired oil company executive, a movie theater operator, a former cop -- operates with oversight from the Sheriff's Office, but it takes pride in being self-directed.
"It's one of those hidden treasures," said Rick Kovar, team coordinator and emergency services director in the Sheriff's Office. "Last year, they donated 44,000 hours of service, which would cost about $2.5 million if deputies were to do the same job."
The newest class of recruits finished its last of 11 training sessions Thursday night, a four-hour "practical search," in which 39 trainees were split into teams and told to find volunteer "missing" persons as darkness settled in. All were dressed in search-and-rescue attire -- khaki slacks, orange shirts -- and lugging backpacks filled with survival supplies. (They pay for their own gear.) This was their final test before graduating from the Type 3 Academy, the lowest rung of the ladder.
To arrive at what Kovar calls the awareness level ("basic search-and-rescue skills," he said) they had to first pass a screening test and then complete 55 hours of training.
"We ask them four or five questions," Human Resources Sgt. Diane Blue said. "We want to know about their integrity, teamwork and leadership skills. You have to want to get up in the middle of the night and go out in the rain for someone else without looking for recognition."
To advance to Type 2 -- more challenging search environments -- they will need an additional 150 hours of training, including a Red Cross first-aid certification class. The vast majority of volunteers are in this class. Type 1 is yet another step above that.
"Our Type 1's are the men and women who climb mountains and jump out of helicopters at 13,000 feet to look for missing hikers," Kovar said.
Operations executive Frank Moschetti, a former Oakland police officer, said there is a science and a strategy to what the team does. "We don't just look for people. We look for clues that lead us to people -- why he's missing, what he's wearing, what he's like. We're the police department's best friend in missing person cases because we're only a phone call away."
The Contra Costa team, the largest of any county in Northern California, includes equestrian, canine and tracking specialists in addition to experts in technical rescue and urban search. All members attend at least one training session a month and are on call 24 hours a day.
What drives a person to do this?
"I wanted to be part of something that's going to make a difference," Blue said.
"For me, it was a pay-it-forward situation," said Sgt. John Banuelos. "I was running a race during a snowstorm, and I got hypothermia. There was a search-and-rescue team there for me. They took care of me, got me water, made me feel better."
Executive Officer Bryan Walley said he grew bored after retiring from Chevron and was seeking more out of life. He cited as an example a recent successful search in Clayton, where his team found a 63-year-old diabetic man who had wandered away from home.
"Just the look on his family's faces was reward enough," he said.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.