COSTA MESA, Calif. -- While there's been increased focus recently from public officials on recovering $160,000 in rescue costs from two Costa Mesa teens who got lost in the south Orange County wilderness, local officials might have saved a good chunk of that money by better engaging people like John Sendrey.
The approach taken by Sendrey, a 42 year-old programmer from Costa Mesa and unlikely rescue volunteer, is raising all sorts of questions about whether public safety agencies can inexpensively expand their reach by better engaging the public.
Sendrey showed up more than two days into the search, and using downloadable apps was able to map out areas that other civilian volunteers had already covered. Combining that with knowledge of the terrain from a local hiker, he set out early on the morning of April 4 to find Kyndall Jack.
He believes he found Jack before anybody else - a contention that the sheriff's department says is possible - and ultimately led rescuers to her shouts for help.
"There's power in sheer volume," said Sendrey, who was honored in May by the Costa Mesa City Council for his unique leadership role in the search.
But, he adds, "there needs to be a way to organize volunteers."
Sendrey's involvement started the morning of April 3, when he arrived at a remote control airfield and noticed a complete lack of central communication among citizen volunteers.
"I was so surprised to get out there and find out there was no organization," said Sendrey, leaving him frustrated that no one was keeping track of which areas had been searched.
So he teamed up with Jeff Polaski, a volunteer firefighter who understood the terrain, to help communicate with other volunteers and plot out areas that had been searched.
Sendrey also harnessed the power of consumer technology.
Using his iPad as an internet hotspot, Sendrey pulled up a free 30-day trial version of the mapping software ArcGIS and gave out the name of a GPS tracking app (GeoCorder) for others to download onto their iPhones.
Sendrey estimates that he handed his email address to about 30 volunteers, with around eight sending in their GPS data after searching.
"It's just like a puzzle," Sendrey said of piecing together the data and strategizing where to search.
Plotting out that info together with where the first hiker, Nicolas Cendoya, had been found, Sendrey set out around 5:30 a.m. Thursday for a place he felt would have the highest probability of finding Jack - an area where Falls Canyon meets Trabuco Canyon.
Sendrey says he was "just looking at it as a game. I thought that walking along the crest would be the most effective."
Around 8:15 a.m., Sendrey says he heard the first response from Jack, who he says went from calling out "What?" to shouting "I'm f---ing here!"
He then texted Polaski his location coordinates, who called 911 and passed them on to a sheriff's dispatcher.
Just after 9:30 a.m., Sendrey says a search helicopter arrived, but after not hearing Jack's voice for their first half-hour there he says the Los Angeles County sheriff's paramedic got ready to leave.
"He was going to pull us out," Sendrey said of the paramedic, with Sendrey insisting she was there.
Eventually, Jack's voice was heard again and authorities ultimately rescued her.
As far as who first reported Jack's location, Lt. Jason Park of the Orange County Sheriff's Department said Sendrey reported her whereabouts not long before a separate, professional search team heard her as well.
"That's a possibility," Park said of Sendrey being first.
Sendrey credits the professional rescuers with being tolerant of volunteers who joined in the search.
But he says authorities can do a much better job of sharing information with civilian volunteers - such as safety tips and which areas have been searched - and respecting their role.
The Current Approach
When someone gets lost in a wilderness area, sheriff's officials deploy a variety of resources including a variety of unpaid reserve deputies, search dogs, mapping software and helicopters, among other tools.
The evening that the hikers got lost, sheriff's officials sent out a reserve team that was ultimately joined by infrared-equipped helicopters, riders on horseback, bloodhounds and teams from surrounding counties.
Orange County sheriff's officials largely rely on volunteer reservists, which greatly lowers its personnel costs. The operation, though, still did use 728 staff hours among 61 non-reserve staff members at the department.
Among the authorities' current toolkit, the biggest cost driver is helicopters, which made up more than $60,000 of the total search expenses in this case.
Overall, the operation totaled $160,000, split between the Orange County Fire Authority, Orange County Parks, the California Emergency Management Agency and the sheriff's departments for Orange, Los Angeles and Riverside counties.
The question of rescue costs - and recovering the bill - was thrust back into public debate last week when the fire authority demanded Cendoya pay its $55,000 portion of the bill.
OCFA also decided to join an earlier move by the Orange County Board of Supervisors to seek state legislation that to allow agencies to recuperate rescue costs from people who get lost due to negligent or illegal activity.
Yet Sendrey believes there's a different lesson - and focus - that can be drawn by public agencies from the experience finding the two Costa Mesa youths in the Trabuco canyons.
He found Jack before the professional rescuers did. And he did it for free.
"I think people need to step up," said Sendrey, adding that he was "kind of frustrated" that no one was organizing civilian volunteers.
"There needs to be some sort of civilian organization that can present themselves as some kind of credible body," Sendrey added, pointing to a new volunteer group, called SoCal Crisis Volunteers, born out of the recent search.
Park of the Sheriff's Department said part of the challenge in working with civilians is that they often lack the training and equipment that professionals have.
"It's a very challenging thing to do, because I would say most of the people that were showing up to search were motivated out of the goodness of their heart - and God bless them for that - but they were completely unprepared," said Park.
Rescuers had to divert resources to airlifting two volunteers who got injured, Park added, among several volunteers who suffered injuries.
"We're forced to take our efforts away from what we're doing to rescue them," said Lt. Jim England, who commands unincorporated south Orange County.
Advocates for civilian volunteers, meanwhile, point to such injuries as showing the need to properly train civilians about safety and properly organize their effort.
Costa Mesa Mayor Jim Righeimer, whose city council recognized Sendrey's unique contribution to the rescue effort, says citizens shouldn't just sit back and expect law enforcement to take care of everything. Public safety agencies can also do a better job of engaging civilians, Righeimer added.
"In government we have to make sure there isn't this attitude of 'we know better than the public how to get something done.' Because we just don't," said Righeimer.
"You get a lot of high caliber people willing to volunteer and get involved in government," added the mayor. "They're assets. They should be used."
Here's how the $160,400 overall bill breaks down (rounded to the nearest hundred dollars):
Cost by Agency:
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department: $58,000 Orange County Fire Authority: $55,000 Orange County Sheriff's Department: $32,300 Orange County Parks: $6,400 Riverside Sheriff's Department: $5,200 California Emergency Management Agency: $3,500
Cost by Type:
Helicopter support: $60,700 OCFA helicopter support and personnel: $55,000 Salary and benefits: $40,000 Services and supplies: $4,700
Reserve/Volunteer Time (1,908 hours in total):
Orange County Sheriff's Department: 1,388 hours Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department: 391 hours Riverside Sheriff's Department: 95 hours Orange County Parks: 34 hours
You can reach Nick Gerda at firstname.lastname@example.org, and follow him on Twitter: @nicholasgerda.