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S.D. search and rescue team steps up recruitment efforts

Pennington County Search and Rescue is composed of members with a wide variety of backgrounds, experience and knowledge


Pennington County Search and Rescue/Facebook

By Darsha Dodge
Rapid City Journal

PENNINGTON COUNTY, S.D. — Walking around the corner of a slot canyon in Badlands National Park, James Dietz saw the face of a lost hiker light up with the realization she was now safe.

That look is what makes the hours of time spent training and working in the elements worth it, he said.

Dietz, an emergency room nurse from the Sioux Falls area, has been the operations leader with Pennington County Search and Rescue for the last five years. The nonprofit, all-volunteer force of 22 responds to calls for service 365 days a year, covering all terrain, in all conditions.

“I don’t know how you say it, but at the end of the day you feel like you’ve done something that very few people can do and have done, and you feel really good about what you do,” he said.

Pennington County Search and Rescue was born from the aftermath of the 1972 Black Hills Flood. There was no formal search and rescue operation in the area during the disaster, Dietz said, with the fire department and National Guard responding instead. The community came together to establish PCSAR, which operated under Pennington County Emergency Management until 2011. PCSAR now works under the umbrella of the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office, a partnership Dietz called “a very good relationship.”

Despite being based in Rapid City and primarily serving Pennington County, Search and Rescue has developed into a kind of regional resource, Dietz explained.

“We get called down to the Oglala Sioux Tribe to assist them or up into Lawrence County to assist them with rope rescues,” he said. “We don’t only benefit the people of our county, we kind of branch out and help our neighbors as well.”

Attracting and retaining dedicated volunteers is a struggle felt across many first responder departments, Dietz said.

The team is currently working to attract their next cohort of trainees with an open recruitment night set for 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 12 at 140 East Main Street North in Rapid City.

They’re looking for motivated individuals who can commit the time required for training and calls. Search and Rescue members meet for a couple hours every Tuesday night and occasionally on weekends for additional training. Some of that training is transitioning online to allow for flexibility in volunteers’ schedules.

Training takes approximately a year and occurs all in-house. They take the national curriculum and tailor parts of it to specific terrain and situations searchers might encounter in the Black Hills. Those interested aren’t required to have EMT or firefighter experience, Dietz explained, because the team has such a wide variety of backgrounds, experience and knowledge.

“We have everybody from emergency room nurses to engineers and everything in between,” he said. “So they all bring something to the table and they’re able to offer something just a little bit different.”

Besides learning fundamentals, training provides another invaluable resource — trust among team members.

“When you’re on the end of the rope off the edge of Falling Rock, you have to know that the people above you have your back and they know exactly what they’re doing — and they’re doing it the correct way,” Dietz said. “Because some of the things we do are very low frequency, very high risk.”

Whether the phone rings at midnight or in the middle of the workday, Search and Rescue members are there.

“Coldest days of the year, the hottest days of the year, and everything in between we’ll be rolling down the road, because that’s when people like to go outside,” Dietz said.

The team responds to a variety of calls — around 100 every year — with most concentrated on three types: missing and lost persons, high-angle rope rescue and vehicle extrication. They have thousands of dollars’ worth of specialized gear and vehicles from ATVs to tracked vehicles and those equipped for winter rescue.

But search and rescue doesn’t operate alone; they routinely work with multiple other agencies. Sometimes they’ll use the SHERP — an amphibious all-terrain utility vehicle — to assist the Rapid City Pennington County Water Rescue Team. Other times they work with the Rapid City Fire Department on building collapses and trench rescues. Search and Rescue even has a combined drone team with the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office.

“We can be assisting those agencies just by running the drone for them,” Dietz said. “And then when we have a search and rescue call, they can [run it for us] since our members are then dedicated to search and rescue.”

For more information on Pennington County Search and Rescue, visit

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