Organized search and rescue as we know it today had its beginnings in Europe. In the United States, Seattle Mountain Rescue Council (SMR) and its founders were at the forefront. In 1954 Explorer leaders were looking for ways to keep older youth involved in Scouting, community service, and outdoor safety. One such leader, Don Wislon, and several SMR members with Scouting backgrounds, Bill Pitts, Max Eckenburg, and Ome Diaber, helped lay the groundwork for what would become the first Explorer Search & Rescue organization in the country.
King County ESAR is no longer directly associated with the Boy Scouts of America, however in the early years, Scouting's rules did not allow for women in the program. In 1969 a commissary unit was created to support missions, and in 1972 the opportunity for full and equal field status and membership was extended to everyone.
ESAR's first request for service came in June 1956 from the Seattle Police. The following year, the unit's first wilderness search was successfully conducted for a lost Boy Scout in Mount Rainer National Park. Throughout the 50's and 60's ESAR had approximately 10 missions per year. That number gradually rose to 30 to 40 by the early 1990's.
Today, ESAR responds to over 150 missions per year and it is not uncommon, particularly in the peak season, late spring and early summer, for the unit to respond to 3 or more calls in a single day; sometimes on the same trail. In 2017 ESAR's volunteers logged over 21,000 person-hours, with as many as 2,900 hours on a single search.
ESAR's successful performance and reputation are a reflection of the organization's commitment to training. Prospective members must complete a series of rigorous training courses in order to become field-qualified. Since the beginning, basic outdoor training has occurred in the Camp Edward area. Trainees are taught wilderness navigation and survival skills, search theory and methods, and most importantly, evaluated for their ability to effectively work as part of a team.
The training program content has largely remained consistent over the years. Course II has always been the most challenging component. Perhaps the only marked change, early Course III's included a hike to Echo Lake with a compass run for accuracy at the end. Today Course III operates as a simulated search scenario, involving multiple units, and exposing trainees to various real-world situations in order to prepare them for conditions and activities they will experience on an actual mission. Additionally, continued training requirements have been established to maintain perishable skills such as first aid, helicopter safety, and crime scene preservation.
There was a time when ESAR members had to communicate with field teams over borrowed police walkie-talkies and citizens' band radios. In 1973 we were licensed on low-band radio frequencies (47 MHz), but today we communicate on VHF frequencies (155 MHz). Over the years, the performance of the radios and battery life has improved even while they have become lighter and more compact.
Since the late 1990's, portable GPS units have made a similar progression of performance improvement and weight reduction. Today when responding to missions ESAR teams typically carry at least one GPS unit to enhance navigation and enable communication of precise coordinates, elevation, and other mission critical information. In 2016 the unit began testing equipment that enables real-time tracking of teams from the command post. The tracking capabilities of these systems produce reliable data that can be used for planning on the current mission, or for historical analysis in support of future missions. In 2017 tracking data was crucial to the planning and operations of a missing person search that took place over 7 operational periods near Goldmeyer hot springs.
Technology has also crept into other less obvious places. Wool is still an excellent choice for versatility and functionality, however advanced textiles such as Gore-Tex, polypropylene, and other synthetic blends have revolutionized the contents of our packs. From our helmets to our boots, technology continues to evolve the way we prepare and respond.