When Mike Smith recounts his experiences, he always says "we." As in, "We got to the Pentagon about an hour and a half after the plane hit" on Sept. 11, 2001. He speaks on behalf of his partners, human and canine, as he talks about the work he's done for almost 38 years.
These days, Smith is the president, incident commander and K9 handler for Teller County Search and Rescue. The former law enforcement officer walks with a limp from a car accident that nearly cost him his foot in May, but he's still on the front lines serving the public.
At his side: his wife, Janet Bennett, who handles the team's membership and fundraising. TCSAR is under the jurisdiction of the Teller County Sheriff's Office, but it's an independent nonprofit.
"The only funding we get from the county is about $8,000 a year," Smith says, and that goes to rent and maintain their work vehicles.
Bennett grew up here, but moved all over the country with her Air Force husband. When he retired, they returned to his native state of Virginia. That marriage ended in divorce; while working for the local Humane Society, she befriended Smith, who worked for the county's animal control services.
On the September morning that changed this country, Smith and his dog were called to the Pentagon to search for bodies. That experience spurred Smith, his work partner and Bennett to found a search and rescue business in 2002.
A few years later, Bennett decided to return to Colorado to care for her ailing mother. Smith came along and in January 2006, they joined TCSAR. Each county in the region has a similar team, overseen by the sheriffs and coordinated by a state board.
Their first Colorado mission ended happily when a team member found a lost boy with ADHD who'd spent four days hiding because uniformed people frightened him.
TCSAR has approximately 60 volunteers. Besides physicians and emergency medical technicians, "we've got people that are automobile mechanics, construction workers and Homeland Security people," Smith says. "There's a very good diversity of people in there."
They're joined by support staff, who set up at the base to handle radio communications, mapping, etc.
"Some weekends in the summer, we may have three or four missions, right in a row on a Friday, Saturday and Sunday. Then, we can go for weeks without anything," Bennett says.
During off times, team members receive training in skills including navigation, first aid and avalanche rescue. They may spend days or weeks on missions throughout Colorado. They have to purchase their own gear, and the K9 handlers pay for their dogs' food and vet bills, although several local vets offer discounts.
The volunteers share a commitment to serve others and a passion for the outdoors. They'll go backpacking or running together, but when they're paged for a mission, "they're ready to roll," Smith says. "They're like firefighters."
One of those calls came when the Waldo Canyon Fire threatened Woodland Park. TCSAR members put in more than 1,000 hours handling patrols and evacuations.
A roof overhead
The stories they tell about their missions sort of sound like the plot lines of TV shows. But this is real life, with real people facing real danger from harsh terrain, wildlife and weather. And sometimes, when the outcome is bad, they need help from grief counselors and clergy.
"Janet was at the point that she was going to quit search and rescue," Smith says, "because so many cases we worked back east were homicides or suicides."
Here, missing people are more likely to be lost hikers.
"In the spring and summer, we get hikers that come unprepared," Smith says. "They'll go to the Crags area to hike up on Pikes Peak, and they'll be wearing sandals and shorts and a tank top, and they'll leave about 12 o'clock. Well, if you're familiar with the area, you know that about 3, 3:30, thunderstorms start coming in and the temperature drops 20 or 30 degrees. Then they're not prepared, and they'll call for help."
His recommendations include texting for help rather than phoning, since texts go through more quickly and consistently.
With every mission, TCSAR gains insights for the next one and for future classes and presentations. They have the dedicated team, the experience and equipment to save lives. But TCSAR, which is almost 50 years old, still doesn't have a building of its own; it works out of a tiny rented office.
Smith and Bennett have been searching in Woodland Park and Divide. Their dream headquarters would be large enough to hold trainings or host evacuees, with room for a climbing wall, a dispatch station, a kitchen and a bunkroom. They'll also need space to garage their vehicles, because time spent clearing off snow, for instance, could mean life or death.
"We are probably one of the only teams in our entire state," Smith says, "that does not have a building to put our vehicles in."
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