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Tue, June 18

Technology makes Sheriff's Search and Rescue more 'rescue' than 'search'

Carol (last name withheld per request) and trusty horse Sequel are ready for a Search and Rescue operation as part of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Response Team’s Mounted Unit.<br>
Courtesy Photo

Carol (last name withheld per request) and trusty horse Sequel are ready for a Search and Rescue operation as part of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Response Team’s Mounted Unit.<br> Courtesy Photo

The Wild West - when a posse rode to the rescue and signaled success by firing guns into the air - is a thing of the past.

"We're beyond those days," Yavapai County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue coordinator Sgt. Rich Martin said. "With cell phone technology, a majority of operations have gone from search and rescue to just rescue. Most times, we know where they are, we just have to get them out."

When it comes to rough terrain, the Mounted Unit is particularly good at searching, Martin said, adding it's the unit that most needs volunteers right now, and also the one whose potential volunteers have shown the most resistance to tech training.

"They're not used to relying on GPS because they're used to the terrain and their horses know the way. But we need to have the coordinates of latitude and longitude to keep track of their tracks," Martin said. "The whole idea is to cover as much ground and find that person as quickly as possible."

When he can download and apply the information to computer maps, he better can determine coverage and formulate a plan.

"We're way beyond laying a map on the hood of a car," he said. Martin noted that University of Arizona mathematics professor David Lovelock wrote CASIE, the mapping tool he uses.

He said several factors have caused the Mounted Unit numbers to decrease. Sometimes volunteers can't afford to pull a horse trailer across a mountain. Some feel they don't get called often enough to make training worthwhile. Others balk at attending regular meetings.

"I understand volunteers are putting out their own money, but meetings are how we stay current on everything," Martin explained.

"Some people told me they never got called out so they don't see a need for mounted," said Bill Mason, new Mounted Unit team manager. "Some want to do searches but want no training, no affiliation, will not use GPS or take SAR classes. They just want to show up and search."

Modern Search and Rescue unit volunteers must undergo Basic SAR (Search and Rescue) academy training from the Sheriff's office and know how to operate radios, cell phones and GPS (global positioning systems).

Mason related his conversation with one horseman who resisted the basic training.

"When I asked him how we'd know if he found someone or where he was, he said, 'I'll just shoot my gun in the air and you'll know,'" Mason said, shaking his head in frustration.

But the need remains. On a recent mission in difficult terrain near Chino Valley ideal for horseback, Mason fielded 10 mounted units from Maricopa County because only two were available from Yavapai.

Background checks also are necessary.

"Obviously, we need to be selective in who we allow to search, especially when dealing with children," Martin said.

The Yavapai County Sheriff's Response Team incorporates multiple specialty groups of volunteers when disaster strikes. Whether a fire or flood raging out of control or a small child who's wandered away from home, the department uses all necessary resources, no matter whether day or night.

Although the Sheriff's Office works with Yavapai County Emergency Management, local fire departments and the Forest Service to prepare for any emergency, volunteers play a huge role.

"When you talk to someone who's lost in the dark or stranded in the snow and hear the panic in their voice, you realize the volunteers have a valuable mission in the lives they save," Martin said.

But keeping a ready force of trained volunteers is difficult.

"Everybody wants to help when it happens, but nobody wants to come out ahead of time," Martin said. "The more trained people I can get in the field, the more effective we are."

Among the separate units are: Backcountry for technical work such as swift water and helicopter rescues; 4 x 4; Jeep Posse; Quad Group; Search Dog; Mounted; SCUBA; Air group; Verde Valley Search and Rescue; Southern YCSRT in Wickenburg; and Northern YCSRT out of Ash Fork. Each group varies in size and several members belong to more than one group, with more than 300 volunteers all told, Martin said. For any large search or disaster, the ICT (incident command team) manages the plans, logistics and operations, and includes a mobile command post.

For example, during the Crown King Gladiator Fire this past May, the Jeep Posse, which specializes in fire evacuations, put in well over 2,000 volunteer hours in a two-week period.

"From graveyard shifts running roadblocks, or if the fire changed directions, they had to be on hand to prepare for the worst and evacuate," Martin said. "We also relied heavily on Quad and 4x4 groups to do roadblocks, and the Southern Unit to block roads from the bottom side while Prescott area blocked from the top side. It worked out well."

He said people who regularly run their 4-wheelers for recreation are helpful for search and rescue operations because they are familiar with the territory.

"They know the areas better than we do," Martin said. "We rely on the specialty groups to cover terrain and respond quickly."

A busy specialized group is the Verde Search and Rescue, with many rescues of visitors to Sedona's Red Rock country.

"They know all the short cuts and social trails. In one week, they had three rescues off Cathedral Rock, within 500 yards of each other," Martin said. "I plotted it on a map and Verde Search and Rescue contacted the Forest Service to have a new sign put up so people wouldn't follow the social trail and get stuck on a ledge."

He also keeps track of data such as minimum, mean and maximum distance traveled for each age group represented among rescue subjects, for every search in Arizona.

The information helps him plot future search grids. He said in 2012, 86 Search and Rescues missions took place in Yavapai County alone, while YCSRT teams participated in five others: two in Coconino County, and one each in Apache, Maricopa, and Pinal Counties.

"It's busy," he said.

Martin tries to field a large number of volunteers from all around the county, in order to get people on site as quickly and economically as possible, no matter where they're needed.

"We also need younger people to come in and learn from the older generation," Martin said.

Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer for any unit should first contact Martin at 928-771-3260 or email: and he will direct them to the unit manager.


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