The Marin County Search and Rescue team is a highly trained group of volunteers that are recognized throughout the state for their outstanding abilities and level of training. The unit provides services such as lost/missing person searches, high altitude mountain rescue, cliff rescue and evidentiary searches for agencies throughout the state of California on a mutual aid basis, but has primary duties and responsibilities in Marin County.
The Marin County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Unit started as Boy Scout Explorer Post 74 in 1966, oriented toward ecology and outdoor education. In 1971, we were the first scouting group in Marin to accept females. During the mid 1970s, several members attended a scouting conference in Washington state and learned about explorer search and rescue. They returned and quickly convinced the rest of the group to change the focus to search and rescue.
The team was first sponsored in 1976 by the Red Cross. During that time we assisted with the Orphan Airlift at Hamilton Field of Vietnamese children and many first aid events. In 1978, sponsorship of the team was changed to the Sheriff’s Department, and the unit began to respond to its first search and rescue missions.
In 1988, the unit found itself floundering with few members and realized it needed to revamp the program to keep up with the greater demands. In late 1988, with fifteen new members, we began our efforts to make the team more professional. We revised and expanded our training with the help of CAL-ESAR, Sonoma SAR, and several influential, outside instructors. We also responded on our first mutual aid search to Sonoma County in December 1988.
Today, the unit has 120 members and is well known throughout California as an excellent SAR team, with specialties including search management, technical rescue, planning, and Type 1 teams, which are capable of responding in the most challenging terrain. Marin Search and Rescue is a leader in using the most recent technology in search management and planning. The team is highly advanced in using SARTopo and GPS tracking. E-Bikes are also an innovative addition that the team has used with great success to quickly search and disperse teams along trails. The team’s Unit Leader, Michael St. John, is an expert in searching for abducted children, and teaches a class on that subject to SAR teams around the state and the country. In 2004, when there weren’t as many searches locally, counties in the Sierras and up north were having more challenging and technical searches, and so the team decided to establish a Mountain Rescue Team. It took two years to pass all the testing to be qualified by the Mountain Rescue Association. In 2006, after two years of training and passing three tests, Marin became one of the elite teams of the MRA. Marin is the only team in the country that has youth members as part of its Mountain Rescue Team.
Youth members are a vital part of Marin’s team. High school students as young as 14 are eligible to join the team and are full members alongside our adult members, filling management and leadership roles as well as being indispensable as searchers. Youth members have made many life-saving finds in recent history and remain an important asset to our team. The unit enjoys the strong support of the Sheriff’s Office, ensuring that the team has the best equipment and training available.
We estimate that more than 1,000 people have served their community through this unit since the late 1960’s. Many dozens of lives have been saved by team members. Many more people have been saved from great hardship and pain. We have in our archives more than a hundred letters from families and allied agencies thanking us for a job well done. Every member who has been a part of the team has contributed to our success.
During the early years with the Sheriff’s Office, the unit responded to several large SAR missions, including an overnight search for two missing children in the hills above Inverness and several challenging incidents searching for the victims of the trailside killer between 1979 and 1981. The unit also was heavily involved in disaster operations during the great flood of 1982 and lesser flooding disasters in ’83, ’85 and ’86. During this time, we also assisted in investigations for numerous evidence searches.
In 1989 we responded to 18 missions, three times more than in 1988. We began to get recognition of our new capabilities, both from agencies within Marin and surrounding counties. While the youth program continued to be central to the team, we recruited additional adult members and established a new management structure to provide more continuity for the expanded mission of the unit.