Costs of Rescue Draw Attention to Value of Volunteers

Trabuco Canyon (p)
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While there’s been increased focus recently from public officials on recovering $160,000 in rescue costs from two Costa Mesa teens who were lost in the South Orange County wilderness, local officials might have saved a good chunk of that money by better engaging people like John Sendrey.

The approach taken by Sendrey, a 42-year-old programmer from Costa Mesa and unlikely rescue volunteer, is raising questions about whether public safety agencies can inexpensively expand their reach by better engaging the public.

Sendrey joined the search more than two days after it began and using downloadable apps was able to map areas that other civilian volunteers had already covered. Combining that with knowledge of the terrain from a local hiker, he set out early on the morning of April 4 to find Kyndall Jack.

He believes he found Jack before anybody else — a contention that the sheriff’s department says is possible — and ultimately led rescuers to her shouts for help.

Sendrey who was honored in May by the Costa Mesa City Council for his unique leadership in the search.

“There’s power in sheer volume,” Sendrey said, but “there needs to be a way to organize volunteers.”

Sendrey’s involvement started the morning of April 3, when he arrived at a remote-control airfield and noticed a complete lack of central communication among citizen volunteers.

He said he was frustrated that no one was keeping track of which areas had been searched. “I was so surprised to get out there and find out there was no organization,” said Sendrey.

So he teamed with Jeff Polaski, a volunteer firefighter who understood the terrain, to help communicate with other volunteers and plot out areas that had been searched.

Sendrey also harnessed the power of consumer technology.

Using his iPad as an Internet hotspot, Sendrey pulled up a free, 30-day trial version of the mapping software ArcGIS and gave out the name of a GPS tracking app, GeoCorder, for others to download onto their iPhones.

Sendrey estimated that he gave his email address to about 30 volunteers and that eight sent their GPS data after searching.

“It’s just like a puzzle,” Sendrey said of piecing together the data and strategizing where to search.

Plotting that information together with where the first hiker, Nicolas Cendoya, had been found, Sendrey set out around 5:30 a.m. Thursday for a place he felt was Jack’s most likely location, an area where Falls Canyon meets Trabuco Canyon.

Sendrey said he was “just looking at it as a game. I thought that walking along the crest would be the most effective.”

Around 8:15 a.m., he said, he heard the first response from Jack, who went from calling “What?” to shouting “I’m f—ing here!”

He then texted his location coordinates to Polaski, who called 911 and passed them on to a sheriff’s dispatcher.

Sendrey said that just after 9:30 a.m., a search helicopter arrived but that after not hearing Jack’s voice for half and hour there, says the Los Angeles County sheriff’s paramedic prepared to leave.

Sendrey said he insisted that Jack was there, and eventually her voice was heard again and authorities ultimately rescued her.

As far as who first reported Jack’s location, Lt. Jason Park of the Orange County Sheriff’s Department said Sendrey reported her whereabouts not long before a separate, professional search team heard her as well.

“That’s a possibility,” Park said of Sendrey being first.

Sendrey credited the professional rescuers with being tolerant of volunteers who joined in the search.

But, he said, authorities can do a much better job of respecting and sharing information with civilian volunteers, such as safety tips and which areas have been searched.

The Current Approach

When someone is lost in a wilderness area, sheriff’s officials deploy a variety of resources, including unpaid reserve deputies, search dogs, mapping software and helicopters.

The evening that the hikers became lost, sheriff’s officials sent out a reserve team that was ultimately joined by infrared-equipped helicopters, riders on horseback, bloodhounds and teams from surrounding counties.

Orange County sheriff’s officials largely rely on volunteer reservists, which greatly lowers its personnel costs. The operation, though, still used 728 staff hours among 61 nonreserve staff members at the department.

Among the authorities’ current tools, the most expensive are helicopters, which cost more than $60,000 in this case.

Overall, the operation cost $160,000, which was divided among the Orange County Fire Authority, Orange County Parks, the California Emergency Management Agency and the sheriff departments for Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties.

Looking Forward

Recovering rescue costs was thrust back into public debate last week when the fire authority demanded Cendoya pay its $55,000 portion of the bill.

OCFA also decided to join an earlier move by the Orange County Board of Supervisors to seek state legislation to allow agencies to recover rescue costs from people who become lost because of negligent or illegal activity.

Yet Sendrey said there’s a different lesson and focus that can be drawn by public agencies from the experience: He found Jack before the professional rescuers did, and he did it for free.

Sendrey said he was “kind of frustrated” that no one was organizing civilian volunteers.“I think people need to step up,” he said.

“There needs to be some sort of civilian organization that can present themselves as some kind of credible body,” Sendrey said, pointing to a new volunteer group, SoCal Crisis Volunteers, born out of the recent search.

Park of the Sheriff’s Department said part of the challenge in working with civilians is that they often lack the training and equipment that professionals have.

“It’s a very challenging thing to do, because I would say most of the people that were showing up to search were motivated out of the goodness of their heart — and God bless them for that — but they were completely unprepared,” said Park.

Rescuers had to divert resources to airlifting two volunteers among several who were injured, Park said.

“We’re forced to take our efforts away from what we’re doing to rescue them,” said Lt. Jim England, who commands unincorporated South Orange County.

Advocates for civilian volunteers, meanwhile, point to such injuries as showing the need to properly train civilians about safety and properly organize their effort.

Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer, whose City Council recognized Sendrey’s contribution to the rescue effort, said citizens shouldn’t just sit back and expect law enforcement to take care of everything. Public safety agencies can also do a better job of engaging civilians, Righeimer added.

“In government we have to make sure there isn’t this attitude of ‘we know better than the public how to get something done.’ Because we just don’t,” said Righeimer.

“You get a lot of high-caliber people willing to volunteer and get involved in government,” he said. “They’re assets. They should be used.”

Here’s how overall costs break down, rounded to the nearest hundred dollars:

Cost by agency:

  • Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department: $58,000
  • Orange County Fire Authority: $55,000
  • Orange County Sheriff’s Department: $32,300
  • Orange County Parks: $6,400
  • Riverside Sheriff’s Department: $5,200
  • California Emergency Management Agency: $3,500

Cost by Type:

  • Helicopter support: $60,700
  • OCFA helicopter support and personnel: $55,000
  • Salary and benefits: $40,000
  • Services and supplies: $4,700

Reserve and Volunteer Time:

  • Orange County Sheriff’s Department: 1,388 hours
  • Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department: 391 hours
  • Riverside Sheriff’s Department: 95 hours
  • Orange County Parks: 34 hours
  • Total: 1,908 hours

You can reach Nick Gerda at ngerda@gmail.com, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.

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