Helping to save lives and find the lost – that’s what Sergeant Don Parker and his team of Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteers do every single day. Since 1963 the success rate for Search and Rescue stands at approximately 98% without being able to fully close the few "mystery" cases. The Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Detail has the responsibility for all search and rescue missions involving lost or stranded persons within all the areas of San Diego County including all other jurisdictions within the county. Over the years, the Sheriff’s SAR Detail has grown tremendously. The organization has over 200 volunteers that contribute countless hours of their personal time – often in excess of 40,000 man-hours and 250,000 miles in their privately owned vehicles are donated each year.
Overseeing the SAR operation is Sergeant Don Parker, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue Coordinator. The SAR Detail is comprised of all volunteers, so Sgt. Parker is the only person on payroll within the SAR unit. Sgt. Parker has been with the Sheriff’s Department for 25 years starting as a deputy, working his way through the ranks, and becoming the Search and Rescue Coordinator in 2007. Before becoming a deputy, Sgt. Parker was an avid outdoorsman, enjoying activities such as rock climbing and skiing. He served as a volunteer ski patrol for several years, which has helped him understand and appreciate the volunteer aspect of the organization.
“I greatly appreciate all that our SAR volunteers do,” says Sgt. Parker. “Being a volunteer in a SAR environment is equivalent to being an unpaid professional. Celebrities pretend in the movies to take risks and do stunts and they get awards and money. Our SAR volunteers are doing it for real and for free. They don’t get an Oscar or millions of dollars. These folks are quietly doing their job. They give their lives to help their fellow man.”
Being a SAR volunteer is notably different than other volunteer opportunities; there is a technical aspect to search and rescue that is uncommon in most volunteer posts.
“SAR volunteers must attend a part-time academy and are specifically trained to handle a search and rescue,” explains Sgt. Parker. “When we have a search, it’s a critical time in that person’s life. The training helps prepare our SAR volunteers to search for clues, conduct interviews, and more to find our victim.”
Sgt. Parker recognizes the importance of each and every SAR volunteer and appreciates the passion that these individuals have for helping others.
“It’s something out of the ordinary that makes a person want to crawl out of a warm bed at two in the morning, regardless of the weather, to respond to a search and rescue. I am very fortunate that I get to work with them. It is a very positive and rewarding experience. I have definitely made some life-long friends,” says Sgt. Parker. “Everybody in the world is here for a purpose. Being in SAR allows us to make a positive difference.”
Sgt. Parker is also thankful for the support from his wife, who has to wake up just like everyone else when that phone rings.
“I’ll get phone calls at all times throughout the night about a search and rescue. We’re always on call,” says Sgt. Parker.
In addition to the SAR volunteers, Sgt. Parker notes the importance of the community during a search and rescue mission.
“If we have a missing person, not only do we have our team looking for them, but thanks to media reports, we have the community keeping their eyes open as well,” says Sgt. Parker.
Sgt. Parker would also like to highlight a resource called Take Me Home, which is a registry of individuals with special needs who tend to walk away or have the potential to walk away. The program has helped SAR to take quicker actions in finding a missing person. Take Me Home is available to anyone in San Diego County.
The SAR unit is always looking for volunteers.
“You don’t have to go through the academy to be in SAR. We have volunteers that man the command post, which is an important part of the SAR team,” says Sgt. Parker. “We also have disabled volunteers that help with the command post. You don’t have to be a rock climber – all are welcome.”
For more information about becoming a SAR volunteer, please visit the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department website.