Decades spent braving the intense heat and danger of a burning building. A lifelong romance. A once-in-forever victory culminating a hard-fought athletic career. For those who wear it, a ring can represent much more than a simple piece of jewelry.

It can embody the story of a lifetime — and it can disappear in an instant.

Enter the Ring Finders. The online directory connects people who’ve lost rings (or other metal items) with a metal detectorist in their area. They’re ubiquitous at this time of year — those solitary figures pacing the beach, waving their metal doodads back and forth above the sand. Most beachgoers simply dismiss them as eccentric hobbyists — until, that is, that desperate moment when a treasured heirloom vanishes into the surf or sand.

Rich Hageney, 54, a medical-device salesman from Chester County, remembers the first time his metal detector came to someone’s rescue. He’d recently resumed his childhood pastime, after spending a few years in the military, raising a family, and starting a career.

“A woman came running up to me in tears,” recalled Hageney. “She’d taken off her shorts to play volleyball on the beach and put her rings on top of them. When they went to leave, her boyfriend fluffed the sand out of her pants and the rings went flying. They’d been searching on their hands and knees in the sand for hours when they saw me. I found them within three minutes.”

Already a passionate detectorist (never refer to the human being wielding the device as a detector), Hageney was immediately hooked on using his hobby for good. “It feels great to be the hero,” he said.

That’s the way Doug Gray looks at Hageney since the detectorist recovered his wedding ring in Wilmington’s Bellevue State Park. A risk manager at Citibank, Gray was playing volleyball during a company outing when he realized his ring finger was bare. After he and his colleagues spent more than an hour scouring the sand, Gray Googled “metal detector service.” Hageney arrived within the hour — and found the ring.

“Rich was very confident that he’d be able to find it, which made me happy,” Gray said. “I’m a twin and my brother is on his second ring, so I’ve always been proud that I never lost mine. In my household, Rich is known as the lord of the rings!”

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Hageney’s favorite retrieval came after a call from a hotdog vendor in Pennypack Park. She had befriended a retired firefighter who regularly visited the park to feed ducks from a bridge spanning the creek. One day, the man’s 20-year fire-service ring followed the bread crumbs he’d thrown into the water.

“I put on my waders and detected for a good hour in water a little higher than my knees, but all I found was a lot of junk and cans,” said Hageney.

Determined not to give up the hunt, Hageney retraced the despondent fireman’s steps, discovering that he occasionally strolled to a shallow patch near the bank where he could feed female ducks edged out by the more aggressive males. “I trudged down there and found it right away. It brought me so much pleasure.”

That kind of sleuthing can be just as important to a detectorist as their equipment, said Dave Milsted. The 57-year-old paramedic with the Cherry Hill Fire Department is a self-professed adrenaline junkie who uses his detector to relax (though he still gets a rush when he can return someone’s valuables).

“You have to be a bit of a detective,” he said. “A lot of times the place people think they lost their ring is only where they noticed it was missing. I’ve gone out and searched for hours, only to get a call a day or two later saying they found it in the bottom of a laundry basket, or stepped on it getting into bed in their bare feet.”

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Milsted once spent two days scanning the property of former Eagles tight end Keith Krepfle to find the 1980 NFL Conference Championship ring he lost while doing yard work. And he has lost count of the number of times he has been summoned by a distraught client to find a wedding ring tossed out the window in anger.

And then there was the client who lost a family heirloom while playing with his grandchild at the Shore — a treasured ring that had been passed down for generations.

“He had decided not to rent the beach house where his family vacationed every year because all he could think about was that his ring was out there somewhere,” recalled Milsted. “His wife had even offered to throw her own ring out there so they’d be together. He told me where he thought he’d lost it, but it was actually about a block and a half off. It took me almost four hours, but I ended up finding it.”

Those sorts of stories still thrill Chris Turner, who launched the Ring Finders as a local service in his native Vancouver more than 25 years ago. After an unexpected call from an angel investor, he revamped the directory, which now boasts more than 440 members in 25 countries, the vast majority of them in the States.

Metal detecting has been a lifelong passion for Turner, who spent a summer working at a chicken farm when he was 12 to save up for his first detector. He went on to a professional soccer career, a brief stint with acting (he had one line opposite Johnny Depp in an episode of 21 Jump Street), and now works as a movie stand-in. “The best thing I’ve ever done in my life is what I’m doing now — and that’s helping people,” he said. “At the end of the day, if you can return that ring to someone’s hand, you’re going to see how happy that makes them.”

Most Ring Finders members (including Hageney and Milsted) provide their services on a reward basis, asking for no payment beyond gas money if their search proves fruitless. “I’ve been paid a homemade loaf of banana bread and I’ve been paid as much as two thousand” dollars, Turner says. “Every ring has a story attached to it. When that ring is lost, that story ends. We’re so happy when we can continue that story.”