War has often been described as hours of boredom interrupted by moments of sheer terror. That description can ring true for the men and women of Malibu Search and Rescue (MSAR). While they work scheduled shifts, they are also on call 24/7 to help people in distress in the 187-mile zone covering Malibu and the Santa Monica Mountains. The team responded to an unprecedented 162 rescue calls in 2017, busting previous records in its 40-year history. MSAR attributes the record shattering number of rescues in part due to the wet start of 2017, where there were more hiking incidents in areas with water features like Malibu Creek State Park and Escondido Falls.
This hardworking group of Los Angeles County Reserve Sheriff’s Deputies is prepared at a moment’s notice to rappel down steep cliffs and canyons to rescue injured or lost hikers, make helicopter hoist rescues and assist the Sheriff’s Department in all situations. They work all hours rain or shine and are all volunteers—completely unpaid.
Of the 30 current team members, most have regular day jobs—ranging from a corporate attorney to nurses, and some in entertainment. Four are women, including one of the longest serving members, Roxanna “Rocky” Morton. The recently widowed grandmother of six retired from her full-time career, but not from MSAR.
“I’m really glad I didn’t [retire],” Morton said. “I get to work with great people.”
As reserve deputies, MSAR members have to regularly re-qualify in helicopter training and shooting. Morton is a range master and helps train others on the team—earning respect from male and female team members.
“If he can do it, I can do it,” Morton said is her motto.
“It’s not as if people give her a break,” team leader David Katz said of Morton, adding, “She’s one of the fastest hikers. She’s earned her reputation.”
Also with 28 years on the team, Katz has earned a reputation for bravery that garnered worldwide attention. Fifteen years ago, while working as a traffic judge in Van Nuys, Katz tackled an active shooter while news crews attending the Robert Blake murder trial were filming. It was caught on tape when Katz jumped the gunman and disarmed him, preventing more danger to others while risking his own life.
It’s all in a day’s work for Katz who, unfortunately along with Morton, is one of three team members who lost a spouse to cancer in recent years.
Experiencing the “fragility of life,” as Katz described it, is part of his and the other volunteers’ experience with MSAR rescues, including a call about a car that went over the side of Malibu Canyon.
“It exploded. Rocky and I were the first two people down to the car after the fire was put out. Unfortunately, the people perished in the vehicle,” Katz described. “We had to stay down there for several hours waiting for the coroner. That’s kind of a strange time as you’re thinking what this person’s life might have been—what led them to end up in this situation. You already know they’ve passed away. Their family doesn’t know yet. It gives you a lot of time for self-reflection on your own life because it’s very fragile—that you could just take a wrong turn in your car and that’s the end of your life.
“We appreciate the fragility of life and we also understand that we do makes a difference,” Katz said.
With the unprecedented number of calls made in 2017, the team has made a tremendous difference in helping Malibu residents and visitors who have fallen into trouble. MSAR is even called out of town to help in emergencies such as a missing person case Morton called a favorite.
“We were called to Northern California,” Morton described. “They flew us up on a C-130 to Yosemite because their teams were burned out—they were so busy. I happened to be with the group that found the guy alive.”
Morton comes prepared on rescues with the little things that matter. “One Christmas we got a call to help 12 people at Malibu Creek State Park. They went for a hike and got lost. We found them. There were a lot of women and children, and I know how women are being one so I say , ‘does anybody need toilet paper?’ We carry packs like you wouldn’t believe. We have equipment we carry in with packs and ropes. We come prepared with water, food, extra clothes, flashlights. It’s the simple things in life that people really want and for women that’s what they really want.”
When hikers were stranded a few years ago at Malibu Creek State Park in the middle of a driving rainstorm, MSAR began searching at 7 p.m. and slogged for nine hours in the pouring rain and freezing weather to save them.
Katz summed it up saying, “If we can bring people back to their families preferably alive and well, then we’re adding something of value to the community.”
MSAR is a volunteer organization with no charge to victims for service. Donations are accepted for the purchase of equipment. Visit MalibuSAR.org.