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History of Search and Rescue for
It's been 50 years since a loose band of volunteers coalesced
into the first official members of the Ventura County Sheriff's
Department Search and Rescue Team. The team has since gone from
horseback riding, hemp-rope-carrying ranchers who inherited the
legacy of the cowboy posse to a heavily trained force loaded with
high-tech gear, mechanical muscle and modern communication
"Twenty-five years ago, if you didn't have it in your pack, you
didn't eat," said Sgt. Earl Matthews, a team member from 1974 until
a month ago. "Now they fly in hot meals with helicopters." But
plenty has stayed the same. Aside from participating members of the
Sheriff's Department, the eight search-and-rescue units remain
volunteer-based. And most members do it for the same reason.
"It's exciting and it can be fun and there's a lot of
camaraderie. But you can't just do it for fun, because it's also
become a lot of work. I think most of (the volunteers) just want to
give something back to the community," Matthews said.
"It makes you feel good to be able to help someone," said Otto
Reynolds, one of the original search-and-rescue volunteers. "All you
get out of it is what you feel, and it's a great feeling when
everything works out."
This year  marks the 50th anniversary of the
search-and-rescue team, and the Ventura County Board of Supervisors
honored its members Tuesday, April 25th, at the board's weekly
meeting. A presentation that included a slide show highlighting the
group's accomplishments began at 9:30 a.m. in the board's meeting
room in the Government Center in Ventura.
Show are Sheriff Bob Brooks (left), Otto
Reynolds; Carl Hofmeister (center),
Supervisor Kathy Long (right)
Among those in attendance were local search-and-rescue legends
such as 79-year-old Carl Hofmeister and 65-year-old Otto Reynolds,
both of whom were there before the beginning.
had four or five guys and we all rode horseback. Once in a while,
we'd get a call and we'd go help out," Hofmeister said last week.
Sitting in the room in his Ojai home where the Upper Ojai team still
holds its monthly meetings, Hofmeister said it was just something he
and his friends started doing nearly 60 years ago. "We were just
trying to be Christian about it and help people in trouble,"
Hofmeister said. Original [O] and long time [L] members;
Otto Reynolds [O], Carl Hofmeister [O],
Larry Becket [L], Jim Wright [L] and Bob Culbertson [L].
As the informal Ojai group grew to seven or eight people, a
similar group was performing rescues in Fillmore. A few weeks after
helping the Sheriff's Department with a rescue, things became a
little more formal. The county decided they needed a rescue team,
and us [Upper Ojai] and Fillmore were the only ones doing it at the
time," Reynolds said.
"They were a bunch of roughnecks just like we were,"
Hofmeister said of the Fillmore team. In the early days, equipment
consisted of a horse and some rope, with
a little help from a 1935 Ford pickup truck, Hofmeister said. Calls
involved lost kids and injured ranchers. And things would always
pick up at the beginning of deer season, when hunters would get
lost, hurt themselves or shoot each other by accident.
As the county grew, so did the teams.
Carl Hofmeister addresses
the Ventura County
But getting in was tough. "We were fussy," Hofmeister said.
Membership required 100 percent approval by team members -- a rule
that still stands. Those with hero complexes need not have applied,
and "no drinkers or troublemakers," Hofmeister said. Only those with
the right combination of physical and mental attributes would make
the team; those who could take orders, knew the backcountry and
could tie a good knot.
"It used to be a good lariat rope and a few simple knots were all
you needed," Reynolds said. Working with the Sheriff's Department in
the pre-paperwork, pre-liability era also was simpler. "For a lot of
years, no deputies would even show up on a call. When we finished
up, we'd just call in and say, 'We got 'em. Everything's OK,' "
From those first teams, search and rescue expanded, became more
specialized, more organized. Now there are three mountain rescue
teams, an underwater rescue team, the mounted posse, a medical team,
a K-9 team and an administrative support group. There are almost 170
volunteers. Helicopters mean searches end in hours rather than days.
With cell phones and radios, contact between team members and the
Sheriff's Department is constant. Each incident initiates a stream
While some searches make front page news, most don't. And while
the searches that end in tragedy take their toll, most end happily
-- "99 percent of them," Reynolds said.
There's never been a volunteer death during an operation, and few
major injuries. Challenges remain the same. Matthews, Reynolds and
Hofmeister said that while it requires a special person to join
search and rescue, the volunteer's family must also be a special
"On Thanksgiving Day, the phone rings. On Christmas Day, the
phone rings. On your birthday, the phone rings," Matthews said.
"Something like five out of the last seven Christmases, we've been
And while some find the commitment to be too much, most
volunteers stick around for decades. Hofmeister still plays a part
at age 79 and Reynolds at 65, attending team meetings and helping
with training. "We're their book of knowledge," Reynolds said,
smiling. "I'm still a part of it, instead of getting thrown out."
"Until we die, we'll be a part of it," Hofmeister said.
By Bruce McLean
Ventura County Star writer