These are my stories as a volunteer member of the Sheriff's Search & Rescue team in Coconino County, Arizona. I'll share what it's like to go from a beginner with a lot to learn to an experienced and, hopefully, valuable member of the team, as well as the missions, trainings, and other activities along the way.
About Coconino County
About Coconino County
Encompassing 18,661 square miles, Coconino County, Arizona, is the second largest county in the U.S. but one of the least populated. Our county includes Grand Canyon National Park, the Navajo, Havasupai, Hualapai and Hopi Indian Reservations, and the largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest in the world. Elevations range from 2,000 feet above sea level along the Colorado River to 12,633 feet at the summit of Mt. Humphreys in Flagstaff.
March 26, 2008
On the afternoon of Sunday, March 16th, during a brief snow storm that created whiteout conditions on I-40 west of Flagstaff, there was a stand-by (888) page about a huge vehicle pile-up, which we later learned involved 139 cars and trucks! When I called in and heard Sergeant D's message, Steve and I were driving through town and soon came to an I-40 underpass. Looking up, we saw semi after semi parked along the highway. Traffic was backed up for at least twenty miles! Our coordinator said Search and Rescue volunteers might be needed to help with evacuations, so my husband and I headed home and I got my stuff together for a winter mission.
A few hours later, another stand-by page came through, and this time the message stated that four SAR personnel were on the scene and may need to be relieved if the situation continued past 2200 hours. There had never been an actual call-out, so, at the time, I didn't know who those four SAR personnel were. I hesitate to admit it, but I felt a little jealous; I wanted to be out there helping, too. But I assumed that Sergeant D had directly contacted the most experienced members of the team. That turned out to be true, as I learned at the next general meeting.
Our general SAR meetings are held the third Thursday of each month, and one of the usual items on the agenda is to review the past month's missions, both those involving volunteers and any that involved just Sheriff's deputies. This month, we learned that Sergeant D had been out of town when the pile-up occurred, so he contacted our SAR Captain (also a volunteer) and three others to respond in his absence while he was en route. Those four men helped evacuate uninjured motorists who were stranded on the interstate. City busses were also taken out of service here in Flagstaff and sent to transport people stuck in the backup and bring them to a local shelter at a school, opened by two Red Cross members who also happen to be SAR volunteers. We learned that two people had died in the accident, while numerous others were injured, some critically. Helicopters were unable to land close to the injured, many of whom had to be carried by EMS personnel quite a distance on stretchers. The photos and video posted on the Arizona Daily Sun website the next day revealed just how massive this pile-up was. By 2200 hours, however, SAR services were no longer needed, so no further call-out was made.
Also at general meetings, mini training sessions are held. This time, it was patient packaging. In other words, how to place an injured or ill victim in a litter, strap them in and transport them out of the backcountry. The type of litter used in this training was a "break-apart" litter, which, as the name implies, separates into two pieces for ease of carrying to the patient's location. Available in both stainless steel (34 pounds) and titanium (20 pounds), this litter's light weight also makes it easier to transport than other one-piece, heavier devices. There's a wheel attachment as well, so the litter can be rolled along the ground where possible.
With our largest member as the guinea pig, we put the rig to the test. Wheel or no, it's not an easy feat, even on a level, carpeted floor, let alone in the great outdoors with all of the rocks, roots, slopes and other obstacles that come with it. After transporting the first "patient" around the room, we released him and nominated Val--my companion from the sheep herder search--to be the next volunteer and proceeded to learn how to strap someone in to ensure they don't slide up or down and out if, for example, they're being hoisted into a hovering helicopter or up or down a cliff.
Having been a volunteer victim myself for Wilderness First Responder classes, I know that being strapped into a litter and carried and jostled and jolted and tilted can make a person nauseated, so I piped up for the first time during a general SAR meeting to make that point. (Losing cookies while in a prone position on one's back is not a good thing, after all.) That comment prompted a short discussion about keeping the patient in mind during an evac and appointing one rescuer to keep talking to and monitoring the victim. So I was glad I mustered the guts to open my mouth.
Besides the break-apart, our unit has other types of patient transport devices, including plastic litters that can slide along snow and ice, as well as a new piece of equipment that, by using a pump, has the air sucked out of it so it conforms to the patient's body. I don't recall the name of that device, and Sergeant D was still waiting to receive the pump, so we couldn't try it out at the meeting.
In the weeks following the huge traffic pile-up and most recent SAR meeting, there have been a couple more pages. One came in just as Steve and I were returning from the long Easter weekend we spent at Zion National Park. Really tired and dirty, I opted not to respond. The call-out was primarily for the technical team, the message stated, but any general members who would be available to assist with a possible litter-carry were encouraged to respond as well. How appropriate, considering the mini-training we just had. Sergeant D's message said that a pilot actually saw a climber fall off Steamboat Rock in Sedona. Wow, I thought, that sounds really bad. It wasn't easy NOT to respond, but I found out later that it didn't matter anyway; no climber was ever found, and no one had apparently been able to contact the reporting party either. Could it have been a hoax? Or did a pilot--a pilot in a small plane, I assume--think he saw something he didn't?
Another call-out came at 9pm--2100 hours--last night, just as I was getting ready for bed. I had to be at the office at 8am this morning (I work two days a week as a leasing agent at an apartment complex), but I decided to respond. Who needs sleep anyway? The message stated that two kids had wandered off from a broken-down school bus in the very rural Mormon Lake area about 45 minutes from Flagstaff. But not long after five of us got to the 105 building and had begun getting our equipment and ATVs ready, the kids were located. In fact, they were home already. All that was needed then were a couple of volunteers to go out to Mormon Lake and get the deputy's vehicle unstuck. So I went home and went to bed instead.
And that's about it for now. I've read several missing person stories in the local paper recently, including one about a 29 year-old guy who walked away from Grand Canyon Village, where he lives and works for a concessionaire in the National Park, and hasn't been seen for at least a week by now. He was apparently upset at the time of his disappearance. But no clues to his whereabouts or destination have been found, and it's not even known if he's in the area. I keep thinking that one of these articles will turn into a Coconino County Sheriff's Search and Rescue mission , but, so far, nuttin'.
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