Volunteers risk lives in Kern County waterways

Volunteers risk lives in Kern County waterways »Play Video
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — It's a difficult job they are driven to do. The Kern County Search and Rescue Dive Unit is a team of volunteers, risking their lives in local waterways.

I recently spent an afternoon at Lake Ming with this crew. They are men and women from all different walks of life with one thing in common. They want to help our community by bringing closure to families facing the most tragic circumstances.

Last month, dive team members were called into action to recover the body of 5-year-old Dominick Valencia from a local canal. This elite group also handles vehicle and evidence recovery. They must meet rigorous physical standards and complete monthly training requirements.

But when the call for service comes out, divers and the surface support crew get to the scene and assess the situation, day or night.

Dave Irvine, a dive team member, says they are looking specifically for obstacles they will encounter, the point the victim was last seen, and the most effective search pattern to use.

They do face several challenges, man-made and natural.

"Fishing line is actually a real threat, because you can’t break it. We carry two knives," says team member Stuart Rex.

They also encounter garbage, grocery carts, car parts and giant fish, including bass, trout and catfish.

This is a dangerous undertaking. Kern County has lost two divers during canal searches – Terry Greer in 1973 and Chuck Banning in 1975. The names of these search-and-rescue volunteers are etched in the monument at the sheriff's department.

There are currently about 20 members on the volunteer dive team, and they bring more than 250 years of dive experience to the group. But their extensive training and gear doesn’t cost taxpayers anything. The sheriff's department does provide support, but these divers are all volunteers. They maintain their own gear and rely mostly on fundraising and the generosity of our community for equipment.

Technology has changed dramatically since the dive team was organized in 1962.

Jim Grundt is the captain of the dive team with 40 years experience. “When we first started diving, all we had was standard scuba gear and rope. That was your communication. You pulled the rope and hoped the guy on the surface understood what you wanted,” he says.

Now, divers can communicate with land support staff through a state-of-the-art system that’s just like talking on the telephone. But even with this technology and sonar equipment, visibility remains and issue.

I was invited to join the dive team in Lake Ming to get a feel for what they face on missions. I could not see farther than a few inches from my mask. After just a few minutes in a depth of only about 4 feet, I was told to surface. I was exhausted, anxious and totally disoriented.

Members of this tight-knit team rely on their training and each other in extreme situations and conditions.

They truly are a family, working to bring closure to those who find themselves in crisis.

Search-and-rescue is always looking for new members, divers and land support staff. Applicants must be at least 18 years old and pass a background check, among other requirements.

For more information, contact the volunteer services section of the Kern County Sheriff’s Office at (661) 391-7659.