New search and rescue boss tapped

Thursday, February 25, 2010
Steven Raber is the new head of the county's search and rescue team. Photo by Brian S. Orban

For most of his life, southern Idaho seemed to call Steven Raber to the great outdoors. A soft-spoken giant of a man, he recalled the many days he spent trekking through the mountains east of Mountain Home as a child and countless hours he devoted to fishing and camping.

"I've always been into the outdoor stuff," he said.

In addition to his love of the outdoors, Raber was connected to another long-time passion -- helping others in need. In high school, he joined a medical explorer group, fueling his interest in basic first aid and other life-saving skills. Over the years, he remained involved in medical specialities to further his knowledge, which included spending time with a local fire department as well as a local ambulance service.

But fate seemed compelled to take Raber away from the land he grew to know and love. After graduating from high school, the Elmore County native joined the Air Force. He served as a maintenance specialist with the Minuteman II intercontinental ballistic missile program at Ellsworth Air Force Base, S.D.

However, his love of the outdoors called him back to southern Idaho following his four years on active duty.

"I spend most of my time in the outdoors, whether it's snowmobiling or ATVing, motorcycle riding or hunting and fishing," the 45-year-old said. "I spend a lot of time up there in the mountains. In the summer, my camper stays up in the hills."

When the opportunity allows, he spends many summer weekends in the Fall Creek area. It brings back fond childhood memories of camping and fishing each summer in the mountains.

"I was raised there," he said.

In fact, his lifetime love of the outdoors remains something he shares with his children. He taught each of them to fish and spends each fall hunting with his oldest son, Jordan.

Three years ago, his love of the outdoors and medicine became intertwined after he joined an all-volunteer group of men and women that serve the community -- the Elmore County Search and Rescue team. He joined his brother and a neighbor that were already part of the group.

Enlisting with the team seemed the perfect way for Raber to connect his desire to help others and enjoy the great outdoors. However, it never dawned upon him that this passion would lead him up through the organization's ranks.

Following the search and rescue team's board elections Jan. 14, Raber took command of the organization. He succeeds Daryl Page, who temporarily filled the post following the unexpected departure of the group's senior leadership in September. Page filled the void in the team's core leadership until the group could elect its new board members.

Today, this team includes approximately 25 members, half of which are military people stationed at Mountain Home Air Force Base. In most cases, these volunteers are avid outdoorsmen who heard about the team through word of mouth.

On average, these men and women tackle 15 to 20 missions per year. Their rescue "season" typically peaks between September and November during hunting season with most calls during this time involving overdue hunters in the mountains north of Mountain Home.

Raber vividly remembers his first mission with the team -- a rescue involving stranded snowmobilers on Iron Mountain. Although he wasn't part of the actual rescue, he used the time to better understand how the team handles all aspects of the mission. Operating from their base camp, he closely monitored radio chatter between the other team members as they located and helped the stranded snowmobilers off the mountain.

"That was pretty neat -- to hear all that was going on at that time, how things were developing and how it came to an end," he said.

However, his most memorable missions involve those dealing with children. As a father of seven himself, these mission hit a little too close to home.

Last spring, he responded to an accident in the hills between Pine and Featherville involving two teenage girls, ages 16 and 17. The girls were riding with an adult when their ATV went off a steep embankment.

It was Raber's job to go over the hill to reach the second victim after the first team members pulled the first teen to safety.

"It hits you harder when it's kids that are involved. It's so hard on you to go through all that pain with them," said Raber as he recalled the extent of the girls' injuries, which included broken bones.

In three years, he's completed 18 missions. Of these, four included recovering bodies.

"There was grim to the good," said Raber, who previously served as the team's vice commander. Finding people, even those who don't survive, brings needed closure for their families, which he considers a very important part of the search and rescue team's mission.

It's this desire to help others that compels him to remain with the group.

"I enjoy what I do," he said. "Different people have different things they enjoy doing, and you just have to have it inside you to do this job."

As the rescue team continues to bolster its ranks following the departure of its most seasoned veterans last fall, Raber emphasized his plan to get every team member "directly involved in every aspect of the searches." He uses every opportunity to get his team this type of hands-on training.

"Being in that (outdoor) environment either rescuing or recovering someone is the best thing for members to go through," he said. "Any time we have a mission, we use it as a training situation. We'll come back and debrief and ask what could we have done better or what could we have done different."

In addition, he continues to rely on each person's strengths to strengthen the entire team. Members of the team's snowmobile group include veteran riders he depends upon to bring the less-experienced members up to speed.

"The members we have on the snow group are... up in the mountains all the time, and that's what I was looking for when I put together the snowmobile (search) team," he said.

Raber emphasized his plans to keep every member of his team actively involved in all aspects of their mission, from training to the actual rescues. Instead of taking four seasoned veterans on a mission, he wants everyone engaged during these operations to see firsthand how things work together, from radio procedures to the actual rescue.

"I'd like all the members involved, and we're working on that," he said.