SNOHOMISH — At 10 p.m. on May 7, 2016, a call came in to Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue (SCVSAR) headquarters requesting volunteers at the Blanca Lake Trailhead in Washington’s North Cascades. The glacier-fed lake was the destination for a group of teenagers who headed out on the trail earlier that day, but at 9 p.m., when the group reconvened at the trailhead, one 18-year-old woman was missing.
The call came in from 911 dispatch and more than 100 professional volunteers deployed. With them was 76-year-old Larry Warner, who would be operating the VHF radios from the command truck. The search continued throughout the night, and temperatures dropped to the low 40s. Searchers with the mountain rescue, helicopter, K-9 and equestrian teams put their meticulous training into action as they scoured the dangerous, snow-covered terrain.
Around midday on May 8, Mother’s Day, a call came over the radio with news: They’d found her.
“When she walked out of the woods, I just about lost it,” Warner says through tears. “Here’s mom, on Mother’s Day, and we gave her her daughter back. That’s why I do it.”
Warner came to search and rescue late in life, but helping has always been a passion, ever since he was a young man working at a greasy spoon in his hometown of Newton, Iowa.
“I get my jollies serving people,” he says. “So, I made good burgers and I served good coffee.”
Warner was drafted to the Navy in 1968, where he operated a nuclear power plant aboard the USS Sturgeon off the coast of Connecticut. After leaving the Navy in 1977, Warner landed a job with Fluke, an electronics company, and spent the next 30 years traveling the country and the world — 45 countries including Italy, China, Saudi Arabia and Egypt — selling electronics. In 1997, Warner, with his wife of 54 years, Sheila, and their son, relocated to the Pacific Northwest.
Immediately, he started looking to build community. He asked his colleague, state Sen. John Lovick, who previously served in multiple positions in Snohomish County government, what kind of volunteer opportunities existed in town. Lovick was blunt, saying: “Call me when you retire.”
In January 2009, Warner did just that.
Lovick told Warner about the Sheriff’s Office Citizen Patrol unit, and by May 2009 Warner was perusing the streets for stolen and illegally parked cars. Simultaneously, he served with the Snohomish County Community Health Center where he helped establish three free medical and dental care clinics, and he volunteered with Cocoon House, the only social services agency that serves unhoused teens in Snohomish County, where he mentored a 16-year-old boy and helped him achieve his dream of becoming a flight attendant.
In 2014, while on a routine mail delivery with Citizen Patrol, Warner visited the SCVSAR headquarters. He walked into the building and was immediately struck by the enthusiasm of the volunteers.
“What I saw were people who loved what they were doing, but they had no business sense,” he says with a cheeky grin. So, the career salesman, with a bachelor’s degree in business management that he got at the age of 52, swooped in to help.
“I see the need,” says Warner, “so I tell people I’m here, and I’m going to help you.”
What many may not know is that search and rescue volunteers offer their services to people in need free of charge, so nobody should ever hesitate to call for help. However, this means the team relies on grants and donations to fund the purchasing and maintenance of their supplies and buildings.
“It takes a certain kind of person to convince you that I’ve got a real good reason for you to give me your money,” says Warner. With expertise in this exact skill, Warner started a donor management system and began contributing tear-jerker stories recapping recent missions for the annual appeal letter. He became the SCVSAR account manager in 2021.
In 2018, Warner helped coordinate the donation and renovation of a retired Taco Bell food truck to help ensure rescuers on the ground have high-quality, high-calorie food ready to refuel them after a mission.
“When I come back to the trailhead, I am so grateful that I have food to get me energized to either go back out into the field, or go home,” says Donnie Pingrey, 35, a member of the Everett Mountain Rescue Team. After completing what he remembers as one of the toughest missions of his SAR career, Pingrey describes eating his plate of steak and potatoes as “a heavenly experience.”
In 2020, Warner and a couple of other volunteers launched the SCVSAR Drone Team, expanding the team’s available resources to include enhanced visual aid, infrared cameras, trackers and range finders. He purchased his first drone out-of-pocket for $2,000 to become familiar with the technology. With the help of donations from the community, Warner and his team have since been able to purchase a higher quality drone that features two HD cameras with infrared and night vision, 200x zoom and Smart Track technology.
“Drones are a tool that give us the information we need, so we can set ourselves up to succeed,” says Andrea Talbot, 48, of the Everett Mountain Rescue Team. Talbot says the drones have been particularly useful for visually scoping out terrain ahead of the team, saving them manpower and increasing the amount of ground they can cover.
And Warner’s not stopping there: He’s reached out to companies such as Elon Musk’s Starlink, whose satellite dishes could bring internet to remote search locations, and AT&T, whose technology could turn a drone into a cell tower. Also in the works: tracking bracelets — normally worn by dementia patients prone to wandering off — that could be worn by individual volunteers, and LIDAR surveillance, which could help the drone cameras penetrate the thick canopy of the trees.
Whether serving hamburgers, selling electronics, teaching a teen how to drive or operating radios, Warner’s compassion and business sense guide him as he works to help those around him. He admits he previously couldn’t see himself as a part of volunteer search and rescue, saying, “I couldn’t see myself flying helicopters or repelling down cliffs.” But SAR needed Warner in a different way.
“I didn’t plan it, but I was ready for it,” says Warner. “And there’s a lot of good jobs out there if you’re not looking for a paycheck.”