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Search and Rescue Coordinators Learn Life-Saving Techniques in Sierras

by on February 25, 2016

Trackers in Training: photo by Jonathan Gudel

On Feb. 2, occasional heavy snow greeted travelers heading up Highway 50 to South Lake Tahoe.  While the wintry conditions caused treacherous roadways for commuters, it presented the ideal backdrop for search and rescue coordinators from various agencies throughout California participating in the Winter Search and Rescue Operations at Camp Richardson Resort.

The training exercise is a five-day, 40-hour California Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) approved classroom and field instruction course with trained and experienced instructors. The instruction, designed by the Law Enforcement Branch of the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), is to educate agencies on how to conduct search and rescue missions during severe winter conditions.

“What we try to instill is that some of these team leaders and managers are not search and rescue folks,” said Cal OES Deputy Chief Matt Scharper, who also serves as the California State Search and Rescue Coordinator. “They’ve never been in these environments. They’re not well-versed in these operations. So what we try to do is teach them the techniques and the tools to have basic all-around exposure.”


Cal OES Deputy Chief Matt Scharper: State SAR Coordinator

Scharper came to Cal OES in 1998 after 13 years with the Mariposa County Sheriff’s Department, where he served as Sergeant, Search and Rescue Coordinator, emergency services/disaster coordinator, patrol supervisor, boating patrol officer, narcotics officer, homicide investigator, communications supervisor, internal affairs investigator, Deputy Coroner, advanced officer training instructor, along with other assignments.
He is now in his 18th year overseeing the Winter SAR Operations. Last year the week-long training was in Mammoth Lakes.

Scharper said there is no other course offered in a similar capacity in California.

“Our hope is that they (search and rescue coordinators) go back to their agencies and communicate what they learned and what worked,” he added. “Maybe they’ll ask ‘Do we need better training? How can we make it better for the citizens?’ That’s what it’s about. It’s not saying what they’ve been doing is wrong, but we try to give them the exposure and let them implement that into their own agencies.”

The weeklong training consisted primarily of classroom and field work. The first day was the only non-field work of the week. Five different presenters, including Scharper, spoke to the class, ranging in topics from administrative and safety to search management and water fitness.

Dr. Ben Schifrin of Doctors Medical Center in Modesto discussed a variety of life-saving subjects such as hypothermia, high altitude and cold weather injuries during a four-hour presentation on the third day.

“Go slowly to altitude or take meds,” Schifrin warned about precautionary tips to avoid altitude illness.

Other intriguing anecdotes from Schifrin:

  • Kids are more prone to altitude illness than adults.
  • Acute mountain sickness feels similar to a hangover and could last up to five days.
  • Worst type of frostbite is when dealing with freezing overnight temperatures, then thawing out and warming up the next afternoon and then freezing again the next night.

Classroom work consumed the morning sessions, with field-related station training for the rest of the afternoons.


Snow Performance: photo by Shawn Boyd

On the second day, the search and rescue coordinators traveled less than a mile from Camp Richardson to Fallen Leaf Lake for station training, which included snow equipment and ground searches. Transitioning from one station to the next, training focused on driving snow machines in the Fallen Leaf meadow for search and rescue missions as well as using snow shoes and skis for back-country procedures.

As one coordinator said after climbing off a snowmobile, “I’ve got to get me one of these.”

Search and rescue via helicopter was also scheduled for that day but was postponed due to inclement weather.

The next day, field exercises of snow evaluation, avalanche beacons and using probe poles preceded the construction of snow caves near the Boat House, site of the classroom lectures, at Camp Richardson.

The final full day of training began with a map exercise in the morning, followed by preparation for an overnight stay in the wilderness. The entire staff was briefed on winter environment, shelter construction and improvisations, along with tips on cooking dinner and constructing campfires, before sleeping outdoors overnight in the frigid Sierra temperatures.


Walk This Way: photo by Jonathan Gudel

Counties represented at the South Lake Tahoe training included: Riverside, San Bernardino, Alpine, Fresno, Inyo, El Dorado, Tulare, Siskiyou, Butte, Shasta, Mendocino and Stanislaus.  The California Highway Patrol (CHP) also participated.
All participants stayed in on-site lodging at Camp Richardson in either cabins or the hotel.

Course objectives included:

  •  How to properly manage a winter search.
  • Understand the importance of winter search pre-planning
  •  Identification and utilization of winter resources; discuss functions and limitations.
  •  Special considerations for cold weather operations.
  •  Understanding cold weather medical injuries and hypothermia
  •  The selection of mountain backpacks, contents, and personal clothing.
  •  Identify key factors in avalanche rescue.
  •  Utilization of aircraft in winter operations.
  •  Winter ground search mobility.
  •  Personal survival in winter conditions.


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