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All-Volunteer Force Makes Daring Glacier Rescues in Iceland

ABC News(REYKJAVIK, Iceland) -- There’s a reason it’s called “Iceland.” It’s covered in glaciers and for much of the year, it’s covered in snow.

With long nights, short days and few residents, it can be difficult to get around, and many people get lost. That’s where the Flugbjorgunarsveitin come in.

Known in English as the ICE-SARS — the Iceland Association for Search and Rescue — they are an all-volunteer force of 18,000 people who serve a country with a population of just over 300,000.

Iceland has no army, no national police.  Instead, these teams find the lost near the top of the world.

“Somebody’s got to do it,” said rescue volunteer Kristin Ingi Austmar. “When you manage to rescue somebody it’s usually a good feeling.”

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In a place where winter can be long and lonely, the rescue squads have become part of the national fabric and it’s easy to see why. The teams are like the intense rescue part of Special Forces, combined with the community work of Boy Scouts and the camaraderie of the Lions Club.

Svanur Larusson is a carpenter by day, but a rescue team leader 24 hours a day. He said in Iceland, unlike other countries, people have to rely on themselves. The members of ICE-SARS do not get paid for their work. They have to raise money to buy all of their equipment, from snow trucks to snowmobiles to climbing ropes.

The stunning Icelandic landscape attracts people from around the world, and the country thrives on the thousands of tourists that come each winter to see the glaciers. Every winter the ICE-SARS teams are mobilized to go out to search for a climber who has fallen into a crack in a glacier or simply disappeared. They often have to work through long dark days and bitter cold. Yet they do it willingly, eagerly and professionally.

Last winter, a climber from Sweden fell into a crevice but was able to get a cell signal long enough to call for help. Hundreds of volunteer rescuers mounted the glacier in the darkness to search. It took four days to find him, but by the time they did he was already dead.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

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