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.

April 20, 2008


Practice, practice, practice. I hear it all the time from SAR instructors, but it is so true. We learn skills in training classes, and they often seem clear at the time, but it's like most things: you don't use it, you lose it. Sometimes there's a stretch between missions, and not all missions require all skills, so you can get rusty. And, as for me, if I don't start practicing right after learning a skill in class, I don't really get it down to begin with.

Over the past few weeks, I've taken part in the following classes:

Truck and trailer training (10 hours)
Navigation Refresher Field Day (8 hours)
GPS (8 hours--four in the classroom, four in the field)
UTV (Utility Terrain Vehicle) training
Venomous Insects and Animals of Arizona
Tracking (4 hours)
Patient Packaging (3 hours)

Some of these skills I'd learned before, such as GPS, map and compass, and tracking, but others were completely new to me. Before the trailer training on April 5th, I'd never maneuvered a trailer backwards in my life. (And I'd towed one forwards only once!) Honestly, it was intimidating trying to maneuver through the cones in reverse with a dozen guys watching, most of whom had plenty of experience at this. In fact, almost all them went through those obstacle courses with huge horse trailers without knocking over a single cone, while I used the smaller ATV trailer that we take on many missions. I definitely bruised a few cones in the process and would have killed some had the instructor not stopped me in the nick of time. Though the instructor told me it can actually be easier to maneuver the larger trailer on a goose-neck hitch than the smaller trailer hitched to the back of the vehicle, which is more sensitive to every little move of the steering wheel, I figured I would rarely, if ever, have occasion to tow a horse trailer. The ATV trailers, however, are called for frequently, so I might as well learn the harder way. All I can say is, that skill is going to take me a LOT of practice to master. At the end of the day, the instructor said he'd recommend that I be allowed to drive with the trailer as long as someone with experience is riding with me. Sounds good to me; I'll never have a chance to practice if I don't actually take the wheel on missions. They say to go slow. Ha! They'll be telling ME to hurry up!

When it comes to GPS, many people are what are called "out of the box users." They buy the gadget, take it out of the box, and go on an outing without first learning how to use the thing. Also, many people rely on a GPS but have no map or compass with them ... or map and compass skills, for that matter. But a GPS is an electronic device. It can fail. It can drop and break. It can run out of batteries when you have no replacements. Sometimes, it doesn't work at all in certain areas because it's can't access enough satellites. So it's really important to have map and compass skills as well, not to mention alternative navigation, in case your GPS decides to give up the ghost.

Many GPS owners know how to mark the location of their vehicle and then, later, use that recorded landmark as a "Go To" to return to where they started. That's all well and good, but it's only one of many functions of a GPS and certainly not enough for SAR missions. For example, a GPS can be used to mark coordinates of footprints and other clues, determine areas that have already been searched, convert from one coordinate system and map datum to another (ie. when dealing with the DPS helicopter using Lat/Long and WGS84 map datum versus the UTM coordinate system and NAD27 Conus datum we often use on the ground in SAR), give Incident Command the location of the subject when that person is found, and so on. We use our GPSs on just about every mission, though we always have our maps and compasses as well.

Some of the classes I attended during the past couple of weeks were held at the annual three-day Search & Rescue conference in Heber, AZ. In attendance were SAR volunteers and coordinators from teams all over the state, as well as a few from other states. Classes were given for ground-pounders like me, as well as for mounted and K-9 units, with multiple concurrent classes to choose from. In addition to those I attended, classes included Lost Person Behavior, Basic and Advanced ATV, Alzheimer's and Dementia subject behavior, Personal Locator Beacons, Map and Compass, Wilderness First Aid, Introduction to Technical Ground Support and so forth. It was a fantastic--albeit tiring--weekend, packed with learning. And I'm now really noticing the improvement in my abilities and confidence level, especially with the skills I've been taught and had occasion to put to use multiple times. It's a great feeling.

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