Step into Matt’s Shoes

A look at our volunteer’s first year on the team

We have such incredible volunteers! The sheer amount of time and effort that is put into mission response and preparation – all while being 100% volunteer – is breathtaking. Our volunteers pour their own time, effort, and money into saving lives and reuniting the lost with their families. (Our volunteers’ families are also very generous in sharing their family members with us!) We could not be more proud of our teammates and we wanted you to hear from one. Matt Luoma has been a fielded member for nearly a year. Take a step into his shoes of his one-year experience with DCSAR.

As I approach my first anniversary as a fielded member of DCSAR, I am struck by the evolution of events and expectations.  I became interested in DCSAR as a result of a chance conversation with a friend in 2016. The idea was intriguing – give back to the community, while (hopefully) becoming competent in a variety of the activities in which I had been loosely engaged over the years.  But I wasn’t sure that I could accommodate the significant time commitment. Plus, at age 60, I wasn’t sure I could hold my own on a search and rescue team. With those mixed emotions in mind, I attended an informational meeting in July 2017. In about 30 minutes, I was sold.  I completed the application the next day and then I waited for my acceptance letter with an anticipation not unlike what I had experienced while waiting for college acceptance letters when I was in high school.

I was accepted into the program and the 9-month training marathon started in September 2017.  I quickly learned how little I knew about the various SAR disciplines I was expected to master.  As the weeks went by, we learned about backcountry survival, communications, navigation, first aid, search theory, litter assembly, subject packaging and transport, anchor building, rappelling (which is so cool!), knots, team vehicles and Douglas County landmarks.  Each week, we learned something new and how to use that knowledge in a way to ensure not only MY personal safety but the safety of my teammates and our subjects. There was so much to learn – all good stuff though. Our training mentors are the backbone of the team.  I cannot say enough about them as teachers and as people. They did a great job.

After showing proficiency in all of the required disciplines and passing a written test, I achieved fielded status in May 2018.  I couldn’t wait for my first mission. We were given a phone app for the DCSAR Alert System. For days, I was on pins and needles while nothing came through.  I finally got my chance during the Memorial Day weekend at Rampart Range – a missing person. I was assigned to support a K-9 team. We were running up and down hills as the wind kept changing directions.  I kept wondering why the dog would take a 500-yard zigzag course to go 100 yards. Now, nearly a year later, after having joined the K-9 team, I have learned about how scent particles move about and to trust those amazing dogs and their noses.  But that night, I had less charitable thoughts. The subject was found by another team and escorted back to her loved ones – so it was a good night.

The next mission opportunity was with a climber accident in Castlewood Canyon.  When the alert went out, I was about 15 minutes into giving a platelets donation – which meant no heavy lifting for at least 4 hours.  I had to watch the progress of that mission from the confines of my Bonfils blood donation bed. But eventually, I got into the swing of things and I have been on a variety of missions.  When we get called out, a family is having a bad day. We do our best to fix that.

When I joined the team, I was told to expect that approximately 2/3 of our missions will be searches for urban missing persons.  So far, that has turned out to be true. But what I did not expect is that most missing persons will be found relatively quickly.  I believe this is due to the experience of the Sheriff’s Office. They know what questions to ask during a family interview. Accordingly, we will frequently receive a Stand Down order while we are in route to our rally point.  In fact, I received one Stand Down order as I was backing out of the garage. That is OK – knowing that the subject got home, by whatever means, is the desired outcome. That’s all that matters. Our view is that we would rather mobilize for one hundred calls and receive ninety-nine Stand Down orders than miss the one search in which we could have made a difference.  When the Alert goes off, it means that a family is experiencing what may be the worst day of their lives. We drop what we are doing and head to the rally point as quickly as possible.

Searching for potential suicide subjects has generated a mixed bag of emotions.  We want to bring that subject home safely, but we have to be prepared to recover a body.  It is a difficult part of the mission – but all of us feel a strong obligation to bring that person home to their family.  There is a certain solemnity to a recovery.

Experience and familiarity have made training exercises and missions so much easier now.  I know the locations, the people and the training concepts. I am still learning, but it is so much easier having the familiarity.  I look forward to increasing my knowledge over time. A year ago, before a mission, I might have recited the Shepard’s Prayer – “Dear God, please don’t let me screw up.”  Today, I am reaching levels of expertise that are both comfortable and confident.

The DCSAR time commitment has been significant.  Meetings, trainings, missions and travel-time all add up.  To improve my medical skills, I recently finished a 4-month program to become an Emergency Medical Responder.  I haven’t studied so much since college. A few months ago, I started working with the K-9 Team – K-9 training is in addition to normal SAR training.  In short, I am giving far more time to the team than I ever expected I would. But I can say with no hesitation that I am getting back so much more in return – skills, knowledge, camaraderie and purpose.  It is difficult to put into words what I think of my DCSAR Team Members. I guess the best compliment that I can give is to say that I would willingly put my life in their hands on any given mission. That’s a good thing because I never know when I may have to do just that.  But when I do, I will do so with absolute trust and confidence. I hope that statement adequately sums up my view of my DCSAR Team Members and my overall experience with the team. It has been an incredible year.

– Matt Luoma