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With a leash in hand, Pam Medhurst has been huffing across San Diego County in search of lost and missing people for more than a decade.

She leads a dozen volunteers, including her husband, Richard, who train and handle search and rescue dogs for the Sheriff’s Department. At a moment’s notice, they become part of an organized network aimed at finding people who’ve struggled to see their way back home to family, friends or society.

It’s put Medhurst on the ground for some of the most high-profile searches — like those for Amber Dubois and Chelsea King — and made her become part of both tragic news and triumphant reunions. Her five beagles — Snickers, Danie, Charlie, Wishbone and Huckleberry — have been there, too.

On Thursday, I sat down for coffee with Medhurst to talk about her experiences as the group’s leader, the searches she remembers most and where people often get lost.

How often does search and rescue not find someone?

It’s a very low percentage, and if they’re not located during our search, you say the search is suspended and that doesn’t mean we’ve quit looking. That’s always an open case until we resolve it one way or the other.

When you have found people, how would you describe that moment?

It’s relief. We’re not police officers, so we invest ourselves in the situation and tend to get a little more emotionally attached to what’s going on. So it’s a huge relief. It’s pure joy. If you’ve been up all night, it’s like now I’m not tired anymore.

If you don’t find people, I imagine that emotional investment stays with you then.

It does. You’re always thinking about it. Where could they have gone? We know we’ve done everything possible but you’re always thinking up scenarios in your head. Where could they be?

So how are you able to move on?

As a team, if any one thing is bothering a person we can talk about it together. And we do. We’ll all sit down and hash things out and make sure everyone’s OK.

Does any search come to mind when that’s happened?

There was a missing boy in Big Bear. He just went to get a bag of cookies out of his daddy’s car and he was gone. They called mutual aid, which is how we got involved, and never did find him for a year. And in that entire year you’re thinking, “Where could he have been? Is there something we missed?” His remains were finally located and it looked like a mountain lion actually got him. That was one of the scenarios we had, but it makes it really difficult.

Does any rescue that’s been a success stand out in your memories?

It seems like all of the ones that we hear on the radio that they’ve been found sticks with me. But we had an autistic boy who ran away and actually it was right around Christmas. Our motorized team spotted him and noticed that he was really agitated and upset, so without fuss or anything, they sort of herded him back into base camp — right into his mother’s arms. That was very emotional. And then she turned and hugged all of us, which added to it.

I’m curious. You’ve been doing this for 12 years. Have you noticed anything change with the popularity of cell phones? Are fewer people getting lost or maybe more people are getting lost because there’s a perceived safety net attached to cell phones?

(Laughing) Yeah, we do see that a lot because there’s still very spotty reception in the mountains and the desert. The cell phone might not get any coverage but then they go out confidently into the trail marked “Do Not Enter.” The helicopters have had a couple rescues where people have not been able to make a call, but their cell phone will light up so they can spot them at night.

Is there any park where people get lost or need to be rescued often?

Borrego Springs if they go hiking. At Palm Canyon, people fall and we have to go in there and carry them out because the helicopter can’t get in there.

Why Borrego Springs?

I think some of those trails aren’t well marked. And some of the trails around here, when you look online, the trails have changed, so that messes with peoples’ minds, too.

Interview conducted and edited by Keegan Kyle, who can be reached at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org or 619.550.5668. Follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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