Photos by Brian Addison.
The typical after school activity for a tenth grader doesn’t involve rappelling down a burning tower or practicing wilderness search patterns in the event of a missing person. Unless, that is, they’ve forgone the high school party life to become one of Long Beach’s youngest rescue workers in one of its most obscure agencies.
For the past 52 years, Long Beach Search and Rescue (SAR) has been training the city’s youth to work side-by-side with professional public safety officers during emergency situations. Whether it be S.W.A.T. team support, using the jaws of life to extract a person from a wreck or serving up coffee and pancakes, they’re trained and ready to go 24 hours a day. And they do it for free.
“We’re volunteers, we’re not out on the streets everyday,” said Jim Jeffrey, one of the three original founder of the SAR unit. “So people don’t see us all the time. So that’s part of the reason why we’re not high profile.”
Despite its inconspicuous nature, young adults between the ages of 15 and 19 who have an interest in public service have been using the SAR as a springboard into careers in law enforcement and fire fighting since the organization’s inception. Bob Kistner was one of those youths. He joined the team when he was 17 years old and ascended to the rank of sergeant at the Long Beach Police Department before retiring and coming home to head the operations of SAR.
He pointed out that most of the instructors are either retired fire fighters or police officers who have roots with SAR, some of whom, like Jeffrey, oversaw his training 43 years ago.
“A lot of the folks that have gone through the program stay with us and become mentors because they know they’re training the next generation of leaders,” Kistner said.
The fifteen week academy, taught on the rescue base located on the grounds of the Long Beach Fire Training Center, instructs the volunteer youth in helicopter operations, fire suppression and firearm safety as well as how to respond to a host of other emergencies. Decked out in their formal wear, cadets count out pushups for gaffs during uniform inspection.
“One sir, two sir, three sir.”
The pushups they do today will build discipline and accountability, things that will be needed if they’re ever thrust into an emergency situation. Although they’re young, the over 100 volunteers that make up the unit would be among the first responders if anything catastrophic were to happen in the city. The thought of that doesn’t bother Frank Kuehn. The SAR alumni who has served as a reserve LBPD officer for over a quarter decade has all the faith in the world in these young people because he knows just how rigorous the training is.
“These kids are all trained to a level that they could be very useful in providing manpower during those operations,” Kuehn said. “I would trust most of these guys more than I would trust professional rescuers because we are out here every week and we’re training constantly. And they’re eager to learn.”
That ambition has saved the city some serious dollars. According to figures from the SAR, during their last fiscal year which ended last month,the unit volunteered a total of 23,843 hours. The statewide recognized value of a volunteer worker was set at just over $26 an hour for 2013, translating to a savings of over $620,000. Over the lifespan of the unit, volunteers have logged nearly 900,000 hours equating to a value over $23.6 million.
Long Beach Search and Rescue is also a Learning for Life Explorer Post that is a subsidiary of the Boys Scouts of America (BSA), an organization that Jeffrey once served as president of the Los Angeles area. He said one of the reasons that Scouts are some of the most frequent applicants to the unit is the plethora of Scout alumni that end up in public safety careers and because the SAR unit allows Eagle Scouts to stay involved with the community once they’ve topped out at the BSA.
“I think it’s because it espouses the same values as Boy Scouts,” Jeffrey said of the SAR unit. “We teach them to be good people. Our mission statement for our Search and Rescue post says we want them to grow personally and professionally.”
In 2007, the California’s Governor’s Office of Emergency Services designated the team as a Level II-medium rescue source, the only all-volunteer unit to gain that distinction. Coming from humble beginnings, ones that were almost abandoned during the 60s, to being recognized at at a level that some professional fire departments don’t have is a badge of honor for Kistner and the volunteer rescue workers.
“We’re the only type-2 volunteer organization in the state,” Kistner said. “So a lot of fire departments don’t have equipment like this. So we were very proud to get that designation.”
The unit is co-sponsored by the Long Beach Police Motor Patrol Association and the Long Beach Firefighter’s Association. Although they’ve been the recipients of many of what Kistner described as “hand me down” vehicles to fill out their fleet, they’ve had to get creative in some instances, utilizing local law enforcement block grants, petitioning for Urban Area Security Commission funds and even taking a 24-hour road trip to Fort Sam Houston in Texas.
The fleet of vehicles SAR unit uses has gradually grown more contemporary over the years, slowly fazing out older models with grant money and by acquiring newer hand-me-downs. The older rigs, like the 1953 Reo that was replaced by the Hackney Medium rescue truck SAR currently uses, had their charms with collectors and veterans but lacked necessary functionality and power and needed to join their operators in retirement.
“A lot of people from World War II liked to come up and see this thing and say, ‘Oh wow, we saw this years ago,’” Kistner said. “Well, we were using it as a front line rescue truck. Just not dependable and you can’t go to fleet anymore and say, 'Hey, I’ve got a problem with a 53’ Reo, you got a part for it?’”
One holdover from the WWII era that the unit isn’t looking to replace is the 77-year-old chef on the Rehab truck, Richard Boone. The Navy veteran honed his culinary skills on the USS Skagit while stationed in the Pacific during the war. The South Dakota native can have the “glorified roach coach” (without the roaches) ready to go in 30 minutes whenever he’s needed at a scene where fire or police department employees are expected to be stuck for an extended period of time.
The truck, which is designed to renourish and revive the weary is outfitted with a six-burner stove, oven and a coffee pot that is capable of making 100 cups of coffee at a time, is rare in service fleets in the state. Self-contained and equipped with a cooling tent and misting station capable of lowering the temperature 10-15 degrees for overheated fire fighters, the next-closest rig of its kind belongs to the San Bernardino Sheriff’s department. It also blows away its predecessor, which was described as a panel van with a personal refrigerator and an RV stove bolted to it in a “Mickey Mouse” fashion.
Boone has been working the Rehab truck for 3 years and was recruited for his expertise in feeding a lot of people quickly after working with the American Red Cross for 15 years. Other than helping people, to which he’s devoted nearly 50 years of his life, Boone said the most rewarding part of his job is being on the scene, something that he’s yet to lose interest in. That, and the demand for his bread pudding and cookies has him tethered to the post for as long as he’ll have it.
"Every time I get tired of it, I’ve done it for so many years, I say ‘I just don’t want to do this anymore,’” Boone [pictured right] said. "But then something comes up and it’s, ‘okay Boone, here you go again.'"
Perseverance is a fitting word when you consider the unit’s selfless dedication despite sometime lacking equipment up to the task. “We do what we can with what we’ve got” was a motto casually tossed around, but it’s what they do. The unit keeps on keeping on, remaining the quiet saviors and the next crop of potential city safety officers. They wait for the call to come, regardless of time of day, to spring into action, providing whatever service the city needs from them.
"When there’s an incident that’s going on there’ll be a sergeant that’s out in the field with his playbook and he’s got all his resources. Do I need helicopters? Do I need dogs? Search and Rescue is just one of those things in his tool box," says Kuehn.
Long Beach Search and Rescue is located at 2247 Argonne Avenue on the grounds of the Long Beach Fire Training Center. An orientation meeting for potential members of this year’s academy will be held October 7 at 7PM.