It was a chance social media connection.
And a very lucky one, because it’s delivered four Tauranga search and rescue students to a training exercise inside one of the United States’ most popular national parks.
The Tauranga Youth Search and Rescue, or YSAR delegation – made up of four teenagers and two volunteer instructors – have flown to San Francisco to meet with emergency service professionals and volunteers at Yosemite National Park.
The vast wilderness of Yosemite is a World Heritage site in California’s western Sierra Nevada. It’s visited by the population of New Zealand each year. It’s also home to black bears, coyotes, gophers and chipmunks and boasts 500 giant sequoias – the largest living things on the planet.
The YSAR venture, which has official backing from the United States embassy in New Zealand, will also bring a small team of American students and leaders to Tauranga in December.
“It all started with a few clicks on our Facebook page,” says YSAR instructor Neil Penniston, who helps train students to become emergency response volunteers.
“One of the guys in their Marin County Search and Rescue organisation, just outside San Francisco, found us on Facebook. They liked what they saw and wound up asking if we’d be willing to do an exchange. We can’t quite believe it’s happening.”
The volunteer-run YSAR programme sees teenagers attend weekly classroom sessions and monthly camps. The programme was created in Tauranga and this year expanded to Auckland, allowing participants to spend three years learning leadership and outdoor skills, with a focus on technology, innovation and community.
“The Americans are particularly interested in the way we use technology to aid searches, track students and analyse geography,” explains Neil. “For our part, we are really keen to look at the way they actively involve youth in searches and we also expect to pick up a whole lot of new technical and training skills.”
He says the New Zealand students will spend almost two weeks in Northern California, participating in the Americans’ major annual training exercise alongside local police, fire service and other emergency responders. They have also been invited to climb the Golden Gate bridge with the San Francisco fire department.
The Marin County organisation involves its youth division in searches for injured or missing people in both wilderness and urban settings all over California. It conducts more than 50 operations a year and includes a specialist mountain rescue team, search dogs and air patrols.
Currently, many of its members are involved in fighting a deadly wildfire burning in California and Oregon.
“This is a very impressive unit,” admits Neil. “This year alone they’ve been called in to help find mudslide, car crash and homicide victims and search for lost hikers, skiers, children and people with dementia.
“We won’t fully understand how they operate until we get there, but we do know we’ll be working with their sheriff’s department and will experience a very different alpine and wilderness environment in Yosemite.
“We don’t see too many bears or bobcats where we train in the Kaimai ranges.”
YSAR was formed 10 years ago by police and others in the search and rescue sector who realised their volunteer workforce was aging and new recruits were needed.
They developed and delivered a training programme that is now attracting interest from around New Zealand and as far afield as Singapore and Canada.
An American contingent will visit in December, to stay in Tauranga and participate in the organisation’s annual YSAR exercise in Tongariro National Park.
Neil says the exchange has also attracted interest and sponsorship from information technology company Eagle Technology and the US Embassy in Wellington.
United States Ambassador to New Zealand, Scott Brown, has thrown his official support behind the exchange.
“We’re delighted to support New Zealand’s next generation of search and rescue leaders,” Ambassador Brown says.
“This Kiwi team will have the opportunity to share expertise and practical skills with their counterparts in Marin County and that’ll benefit disaster response in both countries.
“There is a high chance our guests will be involved in actual emergency rescues as this is the ‘high season’ in Yosemite. If not, they’ll join a ‘cold case’ search for a person who has been missing for a longer period.
“We look forward to having the Marin County team here to participate in a similar New Zealand exercise later this year.”
Ambassador Brown hopes to meet with the Tauranga students and instructors after they return to New Zealand.
The Tauranga team includes instructors Neil Penniston and Mark ‘Dingo’ Noack, along with students Sophie Wardell, Jack Niles, Laura Degas and Tom Hoffart.
Jack Niles, 17, says the opportunity to travel with this group is “massive” and he is looking forward to learning from the Americans, meeting teenagers with similar interests and venturing into their national park.
When the Tauranga Boys’ College student joined YSAR in early 2016 he had limited outdoor knowledge. He now has first aid and coastguard qualifications, a radio operator’s licence, numerous practical skills and far more confidence.
“Now, I can go out any weekend with a group of friends and be comfortable wherever I go in the outdoors,” Jack says. “It’s about having the confidence to do things safely in the outdoors and knowing how to be a good follower and a good leader.
“Being involved in YSAR sets you up for life.”
He is also eager to introduce the Americans to New Zealand’s natural environment, including the Central Plateau region and the area where YSAR trains closer to home.
*Applications for next year’s YSAR programme have just opened. For more information, visit: ysar.org.nz