BY KATHARINE LOTZE
Jessica Lee was on her way to work at Boston Scientific one day when she passed a motorcycle accident.
“I remember driving by and thinking I was totally helpless, and this was the worst day of somebody’s life,” she said. “So I did something about it.”
That’s what got Lee started with the sheriff’s reserve deputies program. She’s one of very few female deputies on the reserves, and it shocked most of her family when she decided to go through the Emergency Medical Technician courses and the academy.
“I think going through the reserve academy was probably one of the best experiences of my life,” Lee said. “I was always very book smart, but I think the reserves was probably harder than the six years of getting my Ph.D. because it’s a lot of street smarts.”
She’s been with the Santa Clarita Valley Search and Rescue Team — where most of the reserve deputies serve their 20 hours per month requirements — for about a year now. She said that females are encouraged to go through the academy, though her class was only about 25-percent female. Lee said females bring their own strengths to rescue calls, and are expected to do all of the same tasks as male deputies.
“I’m an engineer. I’m a female. I have a boring day job. And I’m a deputy,” she said.
Ken Wiseman wanted to do more to help the Santa Clarita community than write a check.
“You can give money to organizations, you can sit on boards. Those are very, important things to do. But there is something about being a part of a search and rescue team that’s very personal,” Wiseman said. “It helps you better understand life.”
Wiseman has been part of the Search and Rescue Team as a high-risk volunteer for nine years. The work that the team does just fit in with his hobbies: hiking, rock climbing, and being outdoors.
He remembered one call that had him and two other reserve deputies talking a person back from the edge of a cliff.
“That three hours was maybe some of the most intense minutes I’ve ever spent” he said. Ultimately, the three were able to talk the person off the edge.
He said many of their calls are to find lost hikers who have wandered off the trails or have been caught out after dark, many of which end happily with the hikers reunited with family.
“We live in one of the safest small cities in country and it’s easy to take that for granted,” he said.
Tony Buttitta sees both sides of the crime scene tape. From one side, he looks through a viewfinder as a news photographer for MyFOX LA. From the other, he wears a badge and carries a gun as a lieutenant with the sheriff’s reserve.
“Everyday I see people in their worst day of their life, and I’m sticking a camera in their face,” he said. At times, he even films his own search and rescue team, though he goes out of his way in both positions to remain neutral and avoid any conflicts of interest.
“But being able to come and give back, and go on the other side of the tape for a change and actually help somebody, it’s just a feeling you don’t get working in my day job in the news media,” he said.
Seeing the worst days of people’s lives as both a news photographer and a reserve deputy isn’t easy. Buttitta said as more years go by, it gets harder to remain unaffected by the things he sees.
He choked up as he remembered a call for a missing 4-year-old boy, who was found drowned in a backyard pool.
“I’m hands on, so it affect me a little bit more,” he said. “And then all of the sudden, one of them hits you.”
It took two search and rescue operations that he happened upon by chance before Michael Tolchard took it as a sign and got involved with the reserve deputies.
His first search happened in 2003 on Mount Whitney. A man had fallen down nearly 1,000 feet on the ice, and Tolchard located the body before search and rescue teams arrived.
“If I had found this guy and he was still alive, what could I have done to help him out?” he said. “The answer I basically had for myself was I don’t know much. And I wanted to learn, if I ever got in that situation again, how to be helpful and more useful other than standing there waiting for someone to come.”
But family obligations kept him from taking on the training commitments for the search and rescue team — until a few years later, when he found himself involved in a second rescue in Malibu.
Tolchard’s hiking companion fell and hit their head, which prompted a 911 call, and a rescue team response.
Now, with five years on the Santa Clarita team under his belt, he goes out on many local and out-of-area search and rescue calls, including one last summer for a missing firefighter near Fillmore.
He enjoys being out in the wilderness and learning new things, and cites the camaraderie as a big part of why he enjoys his work with the team so much.
“We all trust each other with our lives,” he said.