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Bill Slaughter's Search & Rescue experience featured in VC Bar Assn "Citations" Journal

Bill Slaughter, a civil litigator and managing partner of Slaughter & Reagan LLP in Ventura, is an attorney with a life outside the law. In his other life, Bill is not only a devoted family man, but the captain of the Upper Ojai Search and Rescue Team.

Being on the search and rescue team was a natural evolution. Bill grew up in Santa Paula. During his high school years, Bill and his friends headed into the back country every weekend, exploring the local mountains and wilderness areas. This was the beginning of his lifelong passion for the outdoors. During a search for a friend, who fell to his death climbing a water fall in Santa Paula Canyon, Bill first saw the Upper Ojai Search and Rescue in action. It left a lasting impression.

After graduating from law school, Bill moved back to Ventura County in the early 1980s and settled in Upper Ojai. He began to practice law with Bill Fairfield in Ventura. Bill wanted to spend time outdoors and serve the community. By joining the Upper Ojai Search and Rescue Team in 1986, he combined both. When the longtime Captain Carl Hofmeister retired about ten years ago, Bill’s Upper Ojai Search and Rescue Team members elected him to become their leader. According to Bill, “It was a great vote of confidence and trust in my abilities to be chosen as Captain by my fellow team members.”

The Upper Ojai Search and Rescue team is a volunteer organization that is governed by Ventura County Sheriff ’s Department. Bill’s mountain rescue team is one of six Search and Rescue teams throughout Ventura County. It has 30 volunteers, male and female, and includes members with varied occupations, such as optometrists, tree trimmers, contractors and local business owners.

Bill and his team are on call 24/7/365. Calls come often during the night and weekends, during winter storms or wild fires. Bill has gone out to find missing backpackers, to retrieve hikers stranded on cliffs, and to save motorists stalled in swift water creek crossings. The Search and Rescue unit plays a vital part in protecting not only lost hikers but all of us in cases of general emergencies. He and his teammates provide assistance in fire-related evacuations and responded to mutual aide calls for emergencies throughout California. For example, Bill assisted in retrieving victims of the landslide in La Conchita, searching with shovels and by hand for bodies.

One memorable rescue occurred last year during a late winter storm. A group of hikers from the Sierra Club was missing in the back country. By sheer luck, Bill spotted the headlamps of the group 400 feet above Highway 33 at Potero John Canyon late at night. At the time, the search had been almost suspended due to the bad weather and lack of visibility. Bill’s discovery led to a dramatic all-night rescue and the hikers were successfully retrieved by helicopter. They suffered from hypothermia, but survived.

Bill and the other volunteers each spend hundreds of hours a year training for rescues and emergencies. Bill often uses his weekends for training, such as practicing swift water rescues or helicopter evacuations. The team volunteers over 3,000 hours a year on searches, rescues and training. That would be a lot of billable hours.

One can predict a heavy winter storm by looking in Bill’s office and seeing search and rescue rain gear along with a duffel bag full of equipment on the floor, ready to go. It is not unusual for him to come into the office in the morning after having been out the entire night on a rescue.

Like other team members, Bill invests hundreds of dollars of his own money to purchase equipment, such as climbing gear. “We need to do fundraising to provide for additional equipment, in particular in light of the budget crises,” Bill says. “Time to mark your calendars. The team will hold its annual fundraiser and barbeque at Bocalli’s in Ojai on October 7, 2012.” http://ojaisar.org .

Technology has not only changed the way we practice law, but also search and rescue operations. In the past, a captain had to communicate with his team through two- way radios which often were out of range. Now, every team member has a smart phone with a GPS, making it much easier for Bill to deploy rescuers. In addition, the Upper Ojai Search and Rescue has a state-of-the-art mobile command center and gets support from the Sheriff’s air unit, including its helicopters.

Bill is a member of the Ventura County Sheriff Foundation Board of Directors, and he uses his passion for the outdoors and his legal skills in assisting in pro bono cases involving back country issues, such as efforts to maintain public access to Matilija Falls. His experience in the back country has also helped him in litigating cases involving wild fires and mud slides.

Being an attorney prepared Bill to be a captain and vice versa. As Bill puts it, “Managing a law office and leading a rescue team is very similar. In both cases, I must bring together individuals with different backgrounds and abilities and make them work as a team to achieve success.”

Gabriele M. Lashly is a State-Bar certified appellate specialist, and an associate at Slaughter & Reagan, LLP