The History of The Alameda County Search and Rescue Unit

The roots of the unit date back to the early 1950’s. ALCO SAR was an original unit of the “Alameda County Rescue Service”, starting out as a Civil Defense unit. Back then the unit focused on Civil Defense and Preparedness. The cold war was just beginning and the Federal Government was providing vehicles and equipment to local agencies to start Civil Defense units. These units were to be trained to provide services should the United States be invaded or attacked by foreign enemies. They were trained in specialized skills to rescue people from collapsed or damaged buildings (the early version of what is today known as Urban Search and Rescue) and to handle radiation emergencies. Additionally, the unit was used in coast watch, scanning the skies at night looking for enemy aircraft that might be approaching the United States coastlines.

As the need for Civil Defense changed in the 1960’s, the unit changed along with it. The unit became more involved in supporting Fire Departments with rescue equipment and responding to motor vehicle accidents, downed aircraft, supporting the Sheriffs’ Office Underwater Recovery Unit and providing lighting and breathing air support at large-scale fires. Through the early 1970’s, things remained the same for the unit. During those times, the Sheriff’s Office Reserves and other outside volunteer units, who were local in the bay area, did most searching for lost persons in Alameda County.

Toward the end of the 1970’s and into the 1980’s, the unit began to transform itself from a Civil Defense Rescue unit to a full service search and rescue unit. The unit became more involved in lost person searches, was doing cliff and roadside rescues and actively becoming involved in more specialized areas that local fire and police agencies were moving away from. During the 1980’s the unit entered a new era of performing search and rescue for Alameda County, displacing the Reserve unit and the other volunteer units that had been performing that duty. Additionally, the unit became active in the State of California Mutual Aid Program and began to respond to assist other search and rescue units in the Bay Area with resources on their lost person missions.

While the unit was advancing in the area of lost person searches, it still held its fundamental roots in Civil Defense and on October 17th, 1989 was pressed into service at the site of the Cypress Freeway collapse in Oakland, as a result of the Loma Preita Earthquake. The unit spent six days working with Fire, Public works and Law Enforcement agencies locating and removing victims from the freeway collapse, in one of the region’s largest disasters since the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake.

On October 19, 1991 the Oakland Hills Firestorm broke out. Nearly two years to the day after the response to the Cypress Freeway collapse the unit was called upon to help with evacuation and incident support for a fire that ultimately killed 23 people, consumed over 5000 homes and apartment buildings and had spread over an area of more than ten thousand acres, becoming the nation’s worst modern day urban fire. The unit capitalized on its rich history in Civil Defense coupled with it’s newly found roots in Search and Rescue and took on the task of locating those individuals who where not able to escape the Firestorm. Over 3 days, the unit along with mutual aid support from 20 other Search and Rescue units conducted methodical searches throughout the burned area to recover the remains of those who were still missing.

Over the years, the unit has continued to grow. ALCO SAR has one of the largest single agency Canine Divisions in the state and is currently developing a cadre of members training for response to backcountry wilderness search missions throughout California.

ALCO SAR has a long established a reputation for being one of the most well trained, professional and well respected Search and Rescue Units in the State of California and possibly even in the United States.

So, we ask that when you don our uniform, you remember our legacy and remember those who have served before you, as their efforts are what have made this organization strong.