A grant from the Stuller Family Foundation is providing a boost to the Lafayette Parish Sheriff’s Office’s search and rescue unit, outfitting the team with new equipment to supplement their training and better prepare them for emergency situations.
The $46,439 grant will help the team purchase items like kayaks, ground search packs containing maps, compasses and GPS devices, ropes rated for water rescues, personal flotation devices and other equipment. The money is already dedicated to specific purchases, Sheriff Mark Garber said.
The sheriff said the outside support is important because most of the department’s funding is tied to dedicated expenditures like employee payroll, benefits, corrections maintenance and housing, and standard upkeep. The budget for extras, like additional search and rescue equipment, is lean, Garber said.
Alex Graham, Stuller Family Foundation board member, said when the board received the department’s funding application the decision to support was a no-brainer. She said it’s important the department has the resources it needs in advance of tragedies and that people don’t step up to support only after heroics are required, she said.
“If it were any one of us or any one of our family members, we would absolutely want them to have everything they need plus more,” Graham said. “It’s something that benefits everyone in the community. There’s not somebody that won’t be affected by them being able to have this equipment.”
The search and rescue unit officially formed in January 2018, after the department recognized a “gaping need” in the services it was able to provide after the 2016 floods, Garber said. At the time, the department’s search and rescue capable officers were dispersed among teams and there was no centralized command to allow for fast and efficient deployment, he said.
“Contrasting the difference from where we are now and where we were in 2016, when I was a month in office, quantum leaps forward as far as … our preparedness,” he said.
Lt. John Mowell, the search and rescue commander, said the team consists of about 60 volunteer deputies spread across air, land, marine and support task forces. The task forces are further broken down into specialties, including the diving, kayaking and boating teams in the marine division.
The deputies serving in the search and rescue unit don’t receive extra compensation.
“These are deputies who are responding to a call within themselves to step up and serve their community at a higher level,” Garber said.
In addition to deputies, the department also commissions civilian specialists like professional offshore divers as part of the search and rescue unit, Mowell said.
The unit decided to build its own training curriculum based on three national search-and-rescue programs — the National Association for Search and Rescue, the FBI’s Joint-Child Abduction Rapid Deployment team and Urban Search and Rescue through FEMA — to ensure they could assist in diverse missions, Mowell said.
Some deputies have also pursued additional training opportunities, including several who’ve attended tracking school to learn how to track missing persons or fugitives in the wilderness, he said.
In 2018, search and rescue deputies and supervisors completed 4,059 hours of training. There are about five training levels ranging from introductory to supervisory and completing all of them requires about 500 hours of training, he said.
They put those skills to the test during 26 missions in 2018. Deputies received calls about despondent people who were attempting suicide, children stranded on the Vermilion River, residents with Alzheimer’s who went missing and sunken boats, among others, Mowell said. Most calls required water rescues.
The commander said he’s proud of the community service the unit provides and the courage and confidence it takes his deputies to enter those situations. It takes a special person to feel comfortable diving in a river when they can’t see their hand in front of them or to hang from a five-story building by a rope, he said.
“Our motto is, ‘So others may live,’ but so much of law enforcement is crime related and enforcement related that people often lose sight of the public services we perform,” he said.