Rapid City firefighters search for bodies along Rapid Creek between West Boulevard and Mount Rushmore Road after the June 9-10, 1972 flood. As a result of the flood, the Pennington County Search and Rescue team was formed.

When flooding struck the Black Hills in 1972, Pennington County Search and Rescue couldn't help in the rescue and recovery efforts.

It didn't exist yet.

In October 1973, about 10 people came together in response to the devastation 16 months earlier and formed the volunteer team with the help of the county and Rapid City, according to Rick Lehmann, search and rescue's team leader.

Team member Ray Coldwell lost his grandparents in the flood. They lived in the area that is now Braeburn Park, off of Jackson Boulevard.

“I was out there the next morning at 6 o’clock looking for people, like a lot of people were,” Coldwell said. “I had to walk through all the mortuaries to find my grandparents.”

The impact of the flood on Coldwell’s life compelled him to join the search-and-rescue group a couple of years after it was formed and he had finished school.

"It gave me a purpose and a reason to do something for the community," said Coldwell, who is the longest serving member, with 37 years on the team.

Since its conception, the team has become an integral part in the area's emergency management, Lehmann said. Today, the all-volunteer team has 25 members and is always looking for more, especially since members are not always free to leave their day jobs to respond to emergencies, Lehmann said.

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“The stuff that we do, most of the volunteer fire departments don’t do,” said Lehmann, who joined the team in 1983. "We’re probably the center point of all the non-fire rescue stuff in the county."

The team helps finds lost hikers and missing people in all weather. They cut people out of vehicles using extrication tools that most volunteer fire departments can't afford, Lehmann said.

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Pennington County and Rapid City budget a total of $41,000 for the team's expenses. Annually, search and rescue raises about $12,000 in donations to put toward equipment they buy with the help of grant money, Lehmann said.

The team is also handy with ropes, performing vertical and trench rescues, and is equipped to handle small building collapses, mass casualty events and evacuations. And if the team is not in command of an incident, it often provides support to agencies that are, providing air supply to fire departments and the dive team.

"We all work closely together on assorted events throughout the year," Lehmann said of emergency agencies throughout western South Dakota.

Recently, the team has assisted the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office in the search for missing Hill City teen Justin Lewis, who was last seen May 28 at Deerfield Lake.

The team responds to an average of about 80 calls for service annually. Responses pick up during the summer, when more people are out enjoying the Black Hills. The team’s expertise can help get those hikers and cyclists out of tough situations.

“There is that need in the community. There is a lot more people out hiking, climbing, biking, outdoor activities,” Lehmann said. “The more people are spending time outside, the more chances of having accidents of that type.”

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Contact Holly Meyer at 394-8421 or holly.meyer@rapidcityjournal.com

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