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E-Bikes Find Purpose in Bay Area Search, Rescue Missions

Marin County Search and Rescue have been using e-bikes for the past year to extend the range and speed of rescue missions. The first pair of donated bikes were introduced in 2019 and the fleet has since been expanded.

Members of the Marin County Search and Rescue team on e-bikes.
Members of the Marin County Search and Rescue team on e-bikes.
Courtesy Marin County Search and Rescue (via Facebook)
(TNS) — On an early morning in August, Marin County Search and Rescue members Anya Cutter and Luca Cuffe navigated steep coastal terrain near Dillon Beach on electric bicycles, looking for an all-terrain vehicle rider who had been reported missing.

They found the crash site after spotting a dim light through the darkness and fog. Riding their bikes through ankle-deep mud, they located the man and called for help getting him to safety.

"The bikes did well," said Cutter, 18, of San Anselmo.

"We got through it no problem," added Cuffe, a 17-year-old Mill Valley resident.

Members of Marin County Search and Rescue, or SAR, have been using e-bikes for the past year. The bikes, which are powered by batteries and pedaling, have proved to be so efficient that the team is looking to retire its fleet of all-terrain vehicles, or ATVs, and add four e-bikes in their place.

The team uses Specialized Turbo Levo bikes, which retail for about $6,000 each. The first pair was donated to the team last October. The Marin County Sheriff's Office, which provides oversight for the rescue unit, saw the value in the machines and decided to buy two more over the summer.

In addition to the 65-hour recruitment training program, team members who use the e-bikes also take a two-hour course on how to operate, maintain and fix the bikes. By comparison, the ATV training requires six to eight classes.

Search team members under 18 are not eligible to use the ATVs, whereas youth members can use the bikes.

Cutter, who joined the program four years ago, said she is grateful for the opportunity to have been a youth member.

"It's pretty rare for kids to get this kind of training," she said. "You really feel like you're making a difference."

"This is a real organization with real missions making a real impact," said Cuffe, who joined the team three years ago. "It feels good to be part of that."

Out of more than 50 missions over the past year, about 20 have involved the e-bikes. The ATVs have only been used three times, said Michael St. John, the team's commander.

St. John called the e-bikes "a game-changer."

"You're able to travel long distances, and pedaling uphill is not a big deal," he said. "And they're silent. The ATVs are loud and because of the ambient noise of the motor, it's impossible to hear somebody yelling for help unless you turn off and stop the motor. With the e-bikes, you're able to search and have all of your senses."

Marin County sheriff's Lt. Pierre Ahuncain, an SAR coordinator, called the team "invaluable."

"It's entirely made up of very hardworking, high functioning volunteers who have saved countless lives," Ahuncain said. "They're skilled at what they do."

Carol Kiparsky and her husband Ian Irwin, the Palo Alto couple who vanished on Valentine's Day from their rental cottage in Inverness, can attest to that.

They had ventured off to a vista to watch the sunset, leaving behind their cellphones and other belongings. When darkness draped over the coast, they lost their way.

Irwin fell and hit his head, and the couple camped overnight with no supplies making plans to find the road in the morning. They followed a stream, hoping it would lead them to safety.

For nine days they survived only on a puddle of water. Each day they called for help.

"We saw planes overhead, and we would be shouting and waving," Irwin said. "We also heard voices, but no one could hear us."

Two search members found them about half a mile from Pierce Point Road, deep in the vegetation. Kiparsky and Irwin heard them and began shouting.

"We heard them say, 'We can't get to you. We're sending a dog,'" Irwin said. "They're our heroes."

Kiparsky said, "Their skill and dedication are just amazing. We now live every day thanking them."

The rescue team has existed since the 1970s. It has 100 members, including 35 high school-age participants. The nonprofit, all-volunteer organization operates on a budget of approximately $90,000 from the sheriff's office and fundraisers.

©2020 The Marin Independent Journal, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.