Organized search-and-rescue volunteers ready when called


In Washington, the chief law enforcement of each political subdivision is responsible for search-and-rescue activities. In Whatcom County, the Sheriff's Office assumes that duty. However, Whatcom County Search and Rescue, which goes by SAR, units are not a part of the Sheriff's Office. Each SAR unit is a "stand alone," non-government entity that meets Washington Department of Emergency Management standards and any additional standards set by the sheriff. When needed, SAR units are called upon by the Sheriff's Office and act under that authority for search, rescue and recovery missions.

Whatcom County SAR has multiple units: the 4x4 unit; the dive unit; the emergency communications group; mountain rescue (Bellingham Mountain Rescue Council); the snowmobile unit; Rescue 015, made up of Civil Air Patrol volunteers; and Summit to Sound SAR with a ground group, dog group, ATV group, horse group, swiftwater rescue group, and emergency medical, or EMS, group.

All SAR units have representation in the Whatcom County SAR Council, also a "stand alone" entity. It is the county's central SAR organization for coordination with the Sheriff's Office/Department of Emergency Management and between the different SAR units and for general administration, equipment and training.

When "activated," SAR members are Washington emergency workers and must be registered with that program according to Washington Administrative Code 118-04. Registration provides insurance, covers losses a volunteer may sustain and provides protection by the state from lawsuits. Because some situations involve sensitive issues or require being around personal belongings, for example the Oso slide area, SAR membership requires a law enforcement background check.

SAR is a commitment, both in time and money. Whatcom County SAR units are 100 percent volunteer and self-funded. Members have to purchase their personal equipment. Donations, fundraising events or grants fund unit and general use equipment. Whatcom County SAR units do not solicit funds by telephone. Any one wishing to donate to Whatcom County SAR can mail their donation to: Whatcom County SAR, 1041 W. Smith Road, Bellingham, Wash., 98226. If they want the donation to go to a specific unit, note that on the donation.

SAR members must meet the training requirements in state law and any other requirements established by the Sheriff's Office or a SAR unit. Most training is accomplished by Whatcom County SAR instructors. Advanced training and certification, such as swiftwater rescue and technical rope rescue, require outside resources. Whatcom County SAR search dogs are especially well qualified. The dogs and their handlers not only have attended multiple classes, they have passed certification tests required to be qualified as a "search dog team." Two units, Summit to Sound and Mountain Rescue, are state emergency medical agencies and have members who are Washington EMTs. Not all SAR members have to go into the field. Every unit has a need for personnel to run the base - scribe, organize, check equipment out and in, etc.

In the event a situation is large, such as the Oso slide, it's common to have citizens "spontaneously" volunteer. Spontaneous volunteers are necessary and welcome in such situations. There are so many ways to help in a large operation, especially at base, that relieve trained searchers to go into the field. For liability reasons, spontaneous volunteers will have to fill out paperwork and are subject to a background check. If they do end up going into the field, they will be put on a team with a trained, certified SAR team leader.

For accountability and proper use of resources, it is very important that spontaneous volunteers check in with the organization running the operation. Those who don't can create problems ranging from becoming victims themselves to destroying or contaminating search evidence to creating a false illusion that an area has been searched. Searching is not as easy as it sounds, and SAR members spend a lot of time training in the different techniques required to be effective.

Community members who think they may be interested in joining SAR should attend a unit's general meeting and get acquainted with the organization. Unit general meetings are held in the SAR building located at 1041 W. Smith Road:

4x4 unit meets at 7:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of every month. Contact the group's president at

Dive unit president may be contacted at

Emergency communications group meets at 7 p.m. on the second Thursday. For information contact

Summit to Sound SAR meets at 7:30 p.m. on the third Tuesday. Contact the group's president at

Mountain rescue meets at 7 p.m. on the last Thursday of the month. For information, contact

Snowmobile unit president may be contacted at


John Lieberherr is chairman of the Whatcom County SAR Council. Unit presidents assisting with this column are Ed Honcoop, John Riddle, Mark Challender, Lauri McBeath and Eric Beamer.

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