Helping People Who Can’t Help Themselves: The Volunteers Keeping Iceland Safe

Helping People Who Can’t Help Themselves: The Volunteers Keeping Iceland Safe

Helping People Who Can’t Help Themselves: The Volunteers Keeping Iceland Safe

Published September 2, 2022

Photo by
Emma Ledbetter

In a second-floor room in a nondescript industrial building by Grindavík’s harbour—notable only for a handful of red and neon yellow emergency vehicles parked on the street—search and rescue workers plot their movements for the day.

Small cracks in the calm facade of the room reveal the chaos beneath: a woman knits in front of a row of computer monitors, only to be interrupted by a phone call. She hurriedly keys data into a program before returning to her knitting as if nothing happened. It seems like a normal office space, and it almost is. Save for the bank of monitors showing nine different live cameras of the Meradalir eruption site, you might not realise lava is spewing out of a fissure in the earth less than 15 kilometres away.

People drift in and out of the room, glancing at a live map of the terrain, shaded dark tan where cooled lava from last year’s eruption at Geldingadalir has covered the surface of the valley. Cartoon Lego figures show the locations of official personnel: black uniforms for police officers, orange vests for scientists, and red and blue jumpsuits for search and rescue volunteers. There are no cartoon tourists on the live map, perhaps dressed like they ransacked an outdoor equipment store. There would be too many to count—a thousand or more at any given time—and they would obscure the emergency personnel.

A brown box outlines part of the map. “That’s the danger zone,” explains Bogi Adolfsson, chairman of Þorbjörn björgunarsveitarinnar, the local search and rescue unit. Anyone inside those lines risks encountering toxic gases and boiling-hot lava, the two most serious threats the volcano presents. Hovering around the border of the danger zone are those red-and-blue-clad search and rescue volunteers, poised for action at a moment’s notice.

Meet the team

Slysavarnafélagið Landsbjörg (ICE-SAR) is the national search and rescue association,  composed of 95 units spread out across the country comprising thousands of volunteers. Think of them as ‘regular’ people—who just happen to have two years of training in first aid, navigation (the old-fashioned way, with a compass and map), mountaineering, and more specialised disciplines like air or sea rescue. Nurses, plumbers, parents, bankers, event organisers, farmers—search and rescue takes individuals from all walks of life and crams them together in various risky environments until they’re a team.

As the name implies, ICE-SAR’s volunteers are not paid for their time. Each unit receives a small amount of money from the government for larger pieces of equipment, but volunteers pay for much of their own gear, including backpacks and uniforms. Most financial support comes from fundraising—either through selling fireworks in the leadup to New Year’s Eve or collectible ICE-SAR figurines throughout the year.

Volunteers believe that their fellow workers—and the people they’re called to help—make the job worth doing. Regularly put in dangerous situations and often finding themselves caught in bad weather, the teams are strengthened through their community bonds.

“It’s like a cult,” says Halla Emilía, a nursing student and Þorbjörn björgunarsveitarinnar volunteer. Search and rescuers, no matter their backgrounds, are brought together by their love of nature, community, and helping people who cannot help themselves, she says.

Volunteer Anna Filbert knows this better than anyone. Despite commuting daily from north of Reykjavík, she has melded into the team on site at Meradalir. “Even across the genders and generations, we mix so well,” she says of her ICE-SAR peers.

Danger by land, sea, and sky

Search and rescue volunteers are the backbone of Iceland’s civil defence. They are on-call for any and every incident outside a populated area—from the beautiful yet deadly Reynisfjara beach to the dynamic and uninhabitable Highlands, and, of course, the recent string of eruptions on the Reykjanes Peninsula. Police rely on these dedicated volunteers to help locate missing people—and sometimes bodies—when the need arises.

The number of tourists visiting Iceland this year is on track to exceed pre-pandemic levels, and with the return of tourism has come a dramatic spike in accidents in Icelandic nature. An unfortunate downside to Iceland’s wild beauty is that many areas have not been developed for large numbers of tourists, so many visitors fail to realise the risks of certain activities.

Search and rescue volunteers have filled this gap with accident prevention campaigns, installing signage and educating visitors about how to stay safe in Iceland’s wilderness. From sea to sky and everywhere in between, they must determine where the danger lies—which often occurs only after something tragic happens to a foreign visitor.

Practices that are common sense for Icelanders are not always intuitive for tourists. Many people do not realise how quickly the weather can change here, leading them to dress inappropriately. SAR volunteers will be the first to tell you never to wear a cotton base layer—always wear wool or synthetic material—and to pack more food than you think you might need. And, of course, stay away from cliffs, water, and (this one should be a no-brainer) lava.

Little volcano, big problems

While photographers, curious passers-by, and die-hard volcano enthusiasts are on a mountain staring at plumes of smoke and rivulets of lava, search and rescue volunteers are creating contingency plans for anything that could possibly go wrong.

“We can fix an ankle, but we can’t fix a human life.”

Most obviously, someone could get burned—really more like boiled alive—by the 1,000º Celsius lava. That has not happened yet, but it’s on everyone’s mind. As the lava from last year’s eruption cools, it is displaced by fresh lava from the new eruption, meaning if someone fell through the cooled crust they could hit fresh, scalding lava. The volunteers have said it before, and they’ll say it ad infinitum: don’t walk on the lava.

“We can’t rescue them when they’re on the lava,” says Bogi, the Þorbjörn chairman. Even if the lava is cooled, it’s too sharp and dangerous for search and rescue workers to operate on. If an accident happens on the lava, they’ll try to rescue you, but they might not be too happy about it. While some parts of the Fagradalsfjall area are more accessible than others, “it’s not a convenient place to get injured,” he says.

“We can fix an ankle, but we can’t fix a human life,” one volunteer explains.

Thankfully, this eruption has resulted in mostly mundane injuries; the majority of calls are people who have twisted ankles on the rock field, fallen on the switchbacks, or simply underestimated the strenuousness of the nearly 15-kilometre trek through the mountains.

The rapidly-changing weather, however, makes rescues much more unpredictable. Even though the eruption site is just a stone’s throw away from Grindavík, there can be completely different weather in the two locations, vacillating between rain, wind, fog, and sun all on the same day. After leaving the warm eruption site, people get cold quickly, which compounds their exhaustion and turns an already difficult hike into a dangerous one.

The weekend after the eruption started, bad weather conditions forced authorities to close the site for this very reason. However, that wasn’t enough to stop determined tourists from making the trek. Two groups got lost in the fog, leading to an all-hands-on-deck search, including deploying the Coast Guard helicopter. “Helicopters don’t help much in thick fog,” says Bogi. Ultimately, volunteers resorted to thermal cameras to track down the lost visitors.

“It’s amazing how many problems a little volcano causes,” says Anna. Not only has it created physical problems for those visiting, social ripples have also been felt throughout the area. Traffic has increased significantly in the small fishing village of Grindavík. Search and rescue volunteers, many of whom are at the site or on call daily, are getting exhausted themselves.

Volunteers have limited power to control the situation, which still resides largely with the police. They do not have the authority to enforce the ban on children under 12, nor can they make someone turn around if they aren’t dressed properly. “It’s frustrating,” says volunteer-in-training Guðmundur Þ. Þórisson, because ICE-SAR can’t enforce the rules that are meant to prevent problems they’ll ultimately have to solve.

A year to prepare

Last year’s eruption at Geldingadalir took search and rescue workers by surprise—not because they were unprepared for a natural disaster of this sort, but because they didn’t know how people would respond to such an event. “All the frustration and surprises happened last year,” says Bogi. “We know how people are going to act. They can’t hide from us now.”

Fortunately for volunteers, last year’s eruption occurred at the tail end of Iceland’s pandemic restrictions, meaning the visitors were mainly restricted to those already living in Iceland. This year, though, foreign tourists were out in full force at the volcano. Parking lots were filled to capacity, causing many to leave their vehicles along the roads and walk in traffic to reach the trailhead.

“It’s not just an ‘us’ problem, it’s a national problem.”

Throughout the eruption, which lasted just over two and a half weeks, the number of visitors ticked steadily higher, reaching nearly 7,000 people on some days. With this many people, rescue crews never anticipate 100% compliance with safety rules. “We’d be disappointed,” Bogi says. “We set our expectations at 75% and try to be satisfied with that.”

At any given time, 40 search and rescue workers were either at the eruption site or prepared to get there at a moment’s notice. Beyond Þorbjörn, which is the closest unit, teams from Reykjavík, Akranes, Keflavík, and elsewhere around the country were on standby as well. “It’s not just an ‘us’ problem,” Bogi says. “It’s a national problem.”

Most natural disasters don’t give as much warning for crews to prepare. The volcanic activity on Reykjanes isn’t expected to end with this eruption, so rescuers have time to plan and prepare for the next ‘tourist eruption’. With every working shift they get more efficient—but also more exhausted.

Start of shift

As the work week draws to a close on a Friday afternoon, search and rescue volunteers Matthías Þór Rafnkelsson and Eðvarð Atli Bjarnason arrive from the neighbouring town of Vogar to start their shift at the base in Grindavík.

They start their vehicles—two red and yellow all-terrain buggies emblazoned with search and rescue logos and already covered in a thin layer of mud—and prepare for the drive to Meradalir. They’ve clearly rehearsed this dance a dozen times: check the buggies, don a motorcycle helmet and thick padded gloves, and stock medical bags with equipment for burns and sprains.

“We have to get gas,” Eðvarð tells me over the roar of the engine as we buckle in. I’m expecting an industrial-type gas station, the kind where municipal vehicles fill their tanks. Instead, we roll up to the N1 station on Grindavíkurvegur, waiting in line behind others heading up to the eruption. The buggies—not to mention Matthías and Eðvarð’s brightly coloured uniforms—draw attention, and a few people pull out their phones to take photos.

“You’re like celebrities,” I observe to Eðvarð. “Kind of. They don’t really know what to do around us,” he says.

From Grindavík, it takes volunteers about 45 minutes to drive to the eruption site. We follow a fleet of other vehicles on the main road to the eruption, turning on blue blinking hazard lights as we approach the bumpy hiking trail. Matthías, who is leading our two-buggy caravan, waves hikers to the right so we can pass. Most people hustle out of our way, assuming we’re heading to an emergency. Others freeze and stare at us, unsure what to do. Matthías honks the horn. There’s no emergency yet, but he doesn’t intend to waste time.

Prep, wait, respond

We check the eruption’s gas levels with an orange handheld device, which lets out a few quick beeps as the program initiates—nothing to be concerned about, merely a sign that it is working correctly. A man approaches. “Is it safe?” he asks in English. Once Eðvarð confirms that it is, the man walks away, relieved.

SAR volunteers are the main point of contact for volcano visitors. If you don’t come with a tour group—or even if you do—the confident-looking people in neon jumpsuits seem like the right ones to answer your questions. “We get a lot of stupid questions…and some not stupid ones,” Eðvarð says. No, they can’t turn on the northern lights. Yes, the gas levels are currently safe.

Matthías and Eðvarð scan the hundreds of people sitting on the hillside. Everything seems to be well, at least for now. Matthías sips an energy drink; he’s been at the eruption all week, he says by way of explanation. I understand immediately.

As we drive back along the trail, Eðvarð points out a man in a short-sleeved shirt and slacks—no backpack or extra clothes—making his way carefully over the rock field toward the volcano. “We might need to pick him up later,” Eðvarð says.

There’s a small turn-out at the base of the switchbacks where they park the two buggies. “Now we wait,” Eðvarð says. It was sunny at the eruption minutes ago, but it’s raining now.

After a short but bone-chilling wait—Matthías and Eðvarð joking as they stand in the rain, me shivering because my hiking clothes aren’t meant for standing around (I understand why people struggle to prepare)—we get a call. Eðvarð gives me a hand signal and we hop in the buggy.

They manoeuvre up the switchbacks with practised efficiency, causing rocks to roll under the wheels and tourists to scatter. A woman is exhausted on the ridgeline and needs a ride down the mountain. Being exhausted on any other long hike—Laugavegur, for instance—could be a death sentence. Thankfully, the volunteers are already here and ready to respond quickly, no matter the reason.

The exhausted woman is waiting with three other ICE-SAR volunteers as we approach. On the trail, I see the man in short sleeves making his way back toward the parking lot, damp but not in any distress. “Look, he’s okay!” I shout over the engine to Eðvarð. He smiles.

Follow us out

I return to the volcano the next day—unaware, for now, that this trip will be the last, as the volcano fell into dormancy just two days later. This time it is late in the evening. As daylight fades and the moon starts to rise over the fiery crater, my coworker and I make our way by faltering headlamp light back to the trail, heading homewards.

I stop at a search and rescue vehicle parked on the ridgeline overlooking the volcano and lean against the door. “Thank you for being out here,” I say to the shadowed face in the car. “Our pleasure,” the ICE-SAR volunteer replies with a fist bump.

After a short hike, we reach our car parked on the rocky back road, now illuminated by light from the same search and rescue vehicle. “Just making sure you made it back,” the volunteer says, their face still in shadow. “You can follow us out.” We drive behind them down the trail to the main road, knowing that as our night ends, theirs has only just begun.

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