Most members of the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office ATV Ready Unit spent more than 100 hours at this month’s Columbia County Fair.
Team Coordinator Steve Beheler and his colleagues weren’t, however, riding the Seattle Wheel and eating caramel apples.
The 26-member team mounted their ATVs to greet and park the hundreds of fair visitors each night.
“We’ve got a lot of people who put in a lot of time,” said co-coordinator Marvin Toulson, who runs a heating and air business. “I run my business all day and stay at the fair all night. I’m there from start to stop every night. I get very little sleep the 10 days of the fair.”
The all-volunteer team works hard at the fair each year, which is the team’s only fundraiser. The money they are paid to handle the extensive parking lot at the fairgrounds is what pays for uniforms and some needed equipment for team members.
“It’s all volunteer,” Beheler said. “Everything we do is out of our pockets.”
Though the team is an auxiliary unit of the sheriff’s office, it receives no funding from the sheriff’s office or other government agency.
Each member provides his or her own ATV as well as first aid, rescue supplies, safety equipment and even some communications equipment. Obviously, team members aren’t in it for the money.
“I wanted to give back to the county,” said Beheler, who has been volunteering on the team for about three years and took over as its coordinator in March. “I enjoy working with people. I enjoy being out in the public. ... It’s been fun. I really like it.”
The fair gig is fun, but not the typical call for the team.
“We typically call on them when (a call) is in a wooded area or where patrol cars can’t typically get to,” Lt. Patricia Champion, of the sheriff’s office Community Services Division, who oversees the team.
The team, armed with ATVs and rescue and medical equipment, is ready to head out for any call in difficult terrain or inaccessible areas.
The ATV team comes in handy when searching for missing children and elderly people, especially those with dementia. They also carry emergency personnel and supplies to those hurt in tough terrain.
When they are needed, team members are often the only ones who can get the needed task done, Champion said.
With the recent start of hunting season, Beheler said his team are ready to handle emergencies like hunters falling out of deer stands.
“That’s when we try to stay on our toes,” Beheler said. “When they call us, it’s places they can’t really get to easily.”
Last year, the team’s only call was to search for a missing elderly person with Alzheimers. They haven’t been called on so far this year, Beheler said, but they are ready and can be mobilized in about 20 minutes thanks to a donated 911 message center that gets calls to team members in several ways.
The team also meets every few weeks for CPR, first-responder, search and rescue and other training.
Not all ATV team activities are emergencies. They often are a friendly face of the sheriff’s office at county community events such as the recent Prepare and Aware Day and the annual Christmas parade. They also help park cars for the Fourth of July fireworks and help out at the annual Oliver Hardy Festival in Harlem.
Though a few team members are active outdoorsmen and own their own ATVs, most bought ATVs so they could participate in the team. Beheler said he has spent about $20,000 in the past two years on an ATV, and enclosed trailer, and supplies and equipment. Team members pay for their own ATV servicing and emergency supplies.
“We spend a lot of time and money on this stuff,” Toulson said.
At the scene of a call, they share some two-way radios owned by the sheriff’s office with the sheriff’s office Auxiliary and Explorer members. They also have to depend on others to be kind and make sure they get food on the scene of long calls, ones that last hours.
The group is a good steward of the little money they work hard for. Beheler said he hopes to purchase some needed equipment for the team, including radios that allow communication with deputies while at a scene and hopefully a trailer that can house cooking equipment and food for the longer incidents.
“There’s so many things that we still need that we can’t afford to get,” Beheler said. “We want to be self-sufficient.
‘‘We work. We earn money and we want to try to support ourselves and supply ourselves with what we need.
“I know it’s expensive,” Beheler said of the special radio needed to communicate with deputies. “How do you put a price on something when you really need it.”
Beheler said he’d also like to see the team grow, especially considering the team’s only fundraiser, the fair, grows every year.
Volunteers must pass a background check, reference check and have their own functioning ATV.
“If you’re not here to try to help the community, this type of stuff is not for you,” Toulson said.
“We’re here to try to help the community and try to help the county. If that’s what we can go do in some shape or form, that’s what we’re glad to do.”
Anyone interested in making a donation to or joining the team should contact Champion at (706) 541-2001.