In The Beginning: How The CoCoSAR Team Got Its Start

Over the years, the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team has evolved from a small group of eager citizen volunteers from a local Jeep club, to a full-scale, 200-plus-member team of well-trained professional volunteers. A quick look back at some of the things that have changed gives some perspective to how much the team has grown, and not just in numbers.

A Brief History
In the mid-1960s, under the direction of Sheriff Reserve Coordinator Sergeant Herman Rellar, Contra Costa County formed the first version of a county search and rescue team. The fledgling group was composed of the Sheriff’s posse, a Sheriff’s Ranger equestrian group, and the Air Squadron Aviation group. It consisted of about 75 Reserve Deputies. In reality, this was not an official search and rescue team, nor did it operate as such. There was no real organization (as is the standard today), and when it came time for a search, there was no formal callout procedure to activate its members.

Due to its ineffectiveness, the unit was disbanded in the late ’60s. But Sergeant Rellar was unwilling to give up. He believed there was a real need for a volunteer team with four-wheel-drive vehicles to go off road to assist the Office of the Sheriff in finding lost and injured people. So, in the early 1970s, he was put in charge of a new Search and Rescue Team. By 1974, what is now known as the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Team (CoCoSAR) officially began.

While Rellar was the impetus for the team from the Sheriff’s Office side, team founder Ed Besse was the driving force behind CoCoSAR from the volunteer side. Besse was tasked with building the program and he did so by recruiting through two local 4×4 clubs, the Diablo Four Wheelers and the Contra Costa Jeepers. Besse also hooked up with a local amateur radio group called REACT (Radio Emergency Associated Communications Teams), a group that eventually evolved into the current RACES program. The SAR Team was made up of off-road enthusiasts and CB radio enthusiasts in its early years.

Moving Forward
While the science and business of Search and Rescue has drastically changed from the early days, some things have not changed; the team still prides itself on its professionalism and takes the job seriously. Management and technology improvements (and hard-earned experience) have increased the professionalism and team capabilities to new heights. But one thing remains true: It is the SAR volunteer that ensures the team’s success.

A little over 10 years ago, the team still relied primarily on team members’ personal vehicles and gear to respond to searches. Through active department support and fundraising, the team now has an incredible cache of gear and department-owned vehicles solely dedicated to Emergency Services. The communications equipment, computer technology and team infrastructure is world-class and has truly evolved over the past decade.

In the early years, the department vehicles the team had were donated vehicles from other agencies. As you can imagine, they took a lot of TLC to be maintained. The first official county vehicle for SAR tech rescue use was a 1957 panel truck dubbed the “Jimmy.” (The Callout issue of February 2010 has a story about the Jimmy. See the archives on the website.)The first communications van was a hand-me-down standard van from Chevron. And there was a 1969 Power Wagon affectionately dubbed “Rescue 1.” While a powerhouse of an off-road vehicle (when working), it more often then not broke down in the field and needed towing back to the corp yard for repair.  Rescue 1 was actually often rescued itself.

The days of hand-me-down vehicles are over and in the past decade we’ve been afforded a variety of new and re-purposed vehicles that give the team a strong fleet with which to perform the SAR mission.  In the old days, we as a team would have been ecstatic to receive vehicles such as our current 12-year-old Expeditions. Soon they will be traded out for brand new F250 quad cabs.         

The SAR patch has undergone only two alterations since its inception. The emblems on the patch represent a variety of SAR disciplines from the early days of the team.  (The Callout issue of March 2010 has a detailed story about the patch.)  These alterations were the result of the team’s evolution. 

One thing that hasn’t changed since the early days is the team’s appreciation for the canines, even though the training and personnel have changed over time. In this issue is the article "The Origin of the Bloodhound on the Patch," which talks specifically about the team’s use of bloodhounds in search and rescue and gives a better understanding of why the bloodhound is featured on the patch we wear today. 

We'll present other aspects of the team’s beginnings in future Callouts.

Thanks to Barb Becerra for her research. Barb has spent many hours chatting with long-term and former team members to learn about the team’s history.