Iceland’s harsh landscapes make disaster inevitable. From large crevasses and avalanches to earthquakes, tidal waves and sandstorms, it seems the potential for calamity is endless.
When police come upon treacherous terrain or have a difficult search and rescue ahead of them, they call Iceland’s search and rescue team, Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg, which is translated to the Icelandic Association for Search and Rescue, or ICE-SAR.
Iceland has no standing Army and only a few hundred thousand people live in the country.
The police and coast guard are spread so thin that when disaster strikes, it’s often up to local citizens to come to the rescue.
ICE-SAR is made up of nearly 10,000 trained volunteers, according to The New Yorker.
The regimented volunteer system has a hierarchy and teams throughout the country have different specialties, like mountaineering, ocean rescue and glacial travel.
Each team is self-funded by an interesting method, fireworks sales.
Fireworks are legal one week a year, around New Year’s Eve, when Icelanders go nuts.
Last year, citizens blew up 500 tons of fireworks during the one week.
ICE-SAR supplies the majority of the public’s firework arsenal. First the rescue team arranges the manufacturing in China and then they import them during the year.
Each regional search and rescue team manages inventory and operates sales stalls.
The funds go towards search and rescue equipment, including top of the line vehicles, like Ski-Doos, Zodiacs and four-wheel drive trucks with floodlights.
Those souped up vehicles also help entice more volunteers.
The search and rescue efforts aren’t just confined to Iceland. The volunteers are ready to move at a moments notice and were the first foreign rescue team to arrive at Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010, according to The New Yorker.
Citizens in the country revere the rescuers.
Icelandic journalist Óttar Sveinsson has written 22 books on Icelandic rescues, which have all been national best sellers.
“The rescue squads are very close to the heart of the nation,” Sveinsson told The New Yorker. “We have come to believe it is a normal thing, to have this in our lives. In some ways, we are spoiled inhabitants.”
The search and rescue team also helps rescue tourists, which is becoming more commonplace as tourism booms.
The number of tourists has tripled over the past 15 years.
Often times tourists under-estimate the risks involved in the outdoors so ICE-SAR volunteers are forced to rescue them.
The volunteer team is made up entirely of civilians, with jobs and families of their own.
Many of Iceland’s companies allow employees to take time off for search and rescue efforts without docking their pay, like an extreme jury duty.
The group has been active since 1918 and is showing no signs of slowing down.
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