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Jeepers to the Rescue

Jeep enthusiasts are assisting local law enforcement as civilian volunteers by contributing their time, their vehicles and their off-road skills.
By: C.J. Worden Jones

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Florida Wilderness SAR-CERT team, lead by Commander Joseph Ruiz and Lt. Commander Melissa Rodriguez.

Throughout Central Florida, off-road Jeepers are assisting in state and county search-and-rescue (SAR) missions. The groups they form are leading the way in utilizing civilian volunteer four-wheel-drive support. By getting more Jeep enthusiasts trained to participate in these critical missions, local law enforcement agencies can cover terrain that would be inaccessible to patrol vehicles.

These crews are not just making themselves and their vehicles available for backcountry SAR missions such as lost hikers, plane crashes and disaster relief. The social media-savvy Jeeper community has also helped in the search for missing people, reaching out to their online groups with alerts and photos and increasing the chances of someone recognizing the subject on the street.

To learn more about how the groups operate and how more Jeepers can get involved, Jeepin’ Central Florida caught up with Joseph Ruiz, founder and commander of Tampa-based Florida Wilderness Search & Rescue – Community Emergency Response Team (CERT), and Corp. Arthur Madden, who serves in the Community Relations Unit and as Jeep Unit coordinator for the Pasco Sheriff’s Office in New Port Richey.

Ruiz and his 44-member team are helping to spearhead the statewide effort to include Jeepers in SAR missions. He says the off-road capabilities of Jeep vehicles and their owners have become a valuable asset to the public. The Pasco County Sheriff’s Jeep Unit includes 37 members, all of whom donate their time and equipment when an SAR call comes in.

Pasco County Sheriff’s Jeep Unit following a mission in Volucia County assisting the Sheriff’s office and Daytona Beach Police Department.

“We have a great, true appreciation for our volunteers,” Madden says of the program.

As they expand their forces, local law enforcement agencies are able to offset the demand that comes with protecting and serving the public. These fairly new units have already proven to be instrumental to SAR and missing-person efforts. Having the ability to reach areas they’ve had trouble getting to in the past, Jeepers and their skills are becoming an indispensable asset for law enforcement, firefighters and first responders.

Join the family

By the time Ruiz bought his first Jeep in 2013, he already had extensive SAR experience. When the Army veteran was stationed in Korea in the early 1970s, he took a water-rescue course offered by the American Red Cross. When Eastern Air Lines Flight 401 crashed into the Everglades in 1972, Ruiz was home on leave.

“I volunteered to assist in the recovery of the cadavers,” he says. “That’s where I quickly got over being grossed out by bloody things.”

Equipped with a Wrangler and retired from a second career in the private sector, Ruiz linked up with the Tampa Jeep Krewe (TJK) and created the TJK-CERT-SAR unit. His volunteers have been vetted and certified by the Tampa Fire & Police Training Center and Greater Tampa CERT. In Pasco County, Sheriff Chris Nocco recognized the importance of expanding their force to include a unit comprised of off-road-ready Jeeper volunteers. Nocco tasked Madden with creating the Jeep Unit. Madden researched units and agencies nationwide, from the Tampa Bay area as far as California, and tapped them for information. TJK-CERT-SAR was among the most enthusiastic responders. “Hands down, without my volunteers, we wouldn’t exist, and I would have fallen short of my sheriff’s request,” Madden says.

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office’s Jeep Unit includes a team of 37 skilled volunteers. The unit is commanded by Corp. Arthur Madden and trained to assist the agency in search-and-rescue, missing-person and disaster-relief missions.

Owing to the demands of the work, the requirements to get involved with an SAR group are strict. Effective and successful missions require a high degree of organization and thoroughness.

“We depend on each other. The training is nonnegotiable,” Ruiz says, noting the group needs to be able to trust and rely on each other to be properly prepared. Furthermore, he adds, having these certifications under your belt makes you a valuable asset to your family, friends and community.

The following are training requirements for Florida Wilderness Search & Rescue – CERT:

  • Attend the Federal Emergency Mandate Agency (FEMA)’s 24-hour CERT course.
  • Complete the advanced CERT medical training, repelling and advanced trauma training offered by Tampa Fire Rescue.
  • Learn how to operate and conduct yourself properly when participating in an emergency scene through the National Incident Management System (NIMS) program. You will also be trained in lifesaving and transportation of victims.
  • Submit to a background check.

Florida Wilderness SAR-CERT take part in a map-reading skills training.

Some of the training is done on a group basis as a social event, and the group also holds events for fun, relaxation and team-building. For the Pasco Jeep Unit’s full letter of expectation, visit pascosheriff.com/jeep-unit.

Ruiz says he appreciates the fact that many Florida Wilderness members have invested in vehicle modifications and upgrades necessary for the work. Members also purchase their own uniforms and protective gear, including helmets and gloves. To attain National Association for Search and Rescue (NASR) certification, you will also need medical supplies and a three-day backpack. Initial upfront costs include the uniform, patch and a decal for your vehicle. On the plus side, everything is a charitable contribution, and most of these costs are tax-exempt; Florida Wilderness is a registered 501(c)(3).

Welcomed With Open Arms

Ruiz and Madden say their teams are very well-rounded. Their volunteers include active and retired military and law enforcement, firefighters, paramedics, EMTs, nurses and mechanics. Both men say they are always looking for quality individuals and groups to bring into their organizations.

Nuts and Bolts

Joseph Ruiz and Corp. Arthur Madden lead teams of
volunteer Jeep owners who are trained and certified to assist in search-and-rescue missions.

Florida Wilderness Search & Rescue – CERT / Tampa / floridawilderness.org

Pasco County Sheriff’s Office Jeep Unit / New Port Richey / pascosheriff.com/jeep-unit

Ruiz’s group recently dropped the word “Jeep” from its name to make it clear that all four-wheel drive vehicles are welcome. Expanding the types of four-wheel drive vehicles presents the group with more options. For instance, a four-wheel-drive flatbed truck can move equipment to a scene while Wranglers are navigating through the trees, finding and leading the path for larger vehicles.

When disaster strikes, Ruiz says, the Jeep crews are there to be directed, and they serve at the pleasure of the agencies in charge – whether it’s FEMA, the FAA or local law enforcement. Ruiz’s group sets up their tent and tells the ruling agency, “Hey, we’re here.” A typical mission will include two to three people in a vehicle with multiple vehicles mobilized to cover more ground and transport resources. A single Jeep team could include a driver, a scout and a forensics expert – all properly trained, all trusted to have each other’s back.

The camaraderie and appreciation that has been developed between these groups and the agencies they serve is the real success story. Both team leaders say they are extremely grateful to every volunteer for their dedication and investment – and they agree there is something about the off-road community in particular that breeds compassion and the desire to help. Madden believes tapping into the strongly rooted Jeep family is helping the community at large stay connected, stay educated, and spread the eagerness and willingness to assist.

“Jeepers are likeminded, goodhearted people,” Madden says.

The views expressed by the authors and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Jeepin' Central Florida or any employee thereof.

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