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.

A Mock Search

Today, ten SAR volunteers--four ground-pounders and six from the mounted unit--are participating in a mock search in the Gray Mountain area north of Flagstaff. The scenario: three hikers who'd been returning to their vehicles each evening after hunting for petrified dinasaur dung all day (a little humor there, because, you see, SAR folks do have funny bones) have been missing for two days now. They are experienced hikers but aren't carrying provisions for staying in the field overnight.

At the start of the mission, the deputy acting as incident commander divides us into teams of two and gives us our initial assignments. We're also provided with maps with search sectors drawn in, and briefings about the three subjects we're looking for, including their shoe sizes to aid in tracking. Despite the fact that this is a mock search, I'm just as eager to find the three missing hikers, who happen to be two SAR volunteers and the wife of a deputy, as I would if this were real. At the same time, I'm feeling more bold in testing my skills--navigation, radio communication, tracking and so forth--than I might if this were an actual mission. In a real situation, I'm still tentative, not wanting to make a mistake, to say something awkward on the radio or to have to ask more experienced SAR members too many questions. So I'm just as motivated today but not as inhibited.

During this mock search, I act as team leader of Ground Team 2, since I do seem have more Search & Rescue skills than my partner. I drive while also handling most of the radio communication and navigation. I have a chance to make certain decisions that I'd otherwise defer to a more experienced companion. We have a lot of area to cover for a relatively small number of people, and I do my best to scan the open countryside, sometimes using my binoculars, as well as look for clues in my immediate surroundings. There's a lot of desert grassland, valleys and mesas to search, but that wide open area is deceiving; there are innumerable nooks and crannies that can hide a person from view.

Several hours go by. One subject is found, sitting behind a rock on an open ridge, where you'd think a person would be in plain view. Dennis responded to a searcher calling out, reminding us how important it is to make some noise--to call the subjects' names, to blow our whistles, to run the sirens. According to Dennis, the first subject was going to be a "gimme;" as long we were making noise, he or she would definitely respond. Now there are two left, and we don't know if they too will respond to calls, so we have to keep trying.

And we try and try, and search and search, sometimes on foot, sometimes driving oh so slowly along dirt roads, two-tracks and powerlines. But after ten hours, we still haven't found the other two subjects, and the exercise is called off. When Ken and Dianne arrive back at incident command, they tell us that two riders from the mounted unit passed right by them, on the ridge just above where they were both sitting amongst the rocks on the edge of one of our search sectors. Since the riders didn't call out, neither of the subjects revealed their location. Had they been found, one of the two would have been a med-evac.

Turns out, I did look in their direction while walking along a dirt road on the far end of that same sector, but even with my binoculars, they were too far away for me to have seen, especially being somewhat hidden by the rocks. I'd actually wanted to search over on that side, with my partner and I walking just below the ridgeline where we would have found them, but our assignment had been changed by incident command before we'd had a chance. Had we had more people participating in the search, we most likely would have been able to cover that area.

All in all, it was a beneficial exercise, giving me some added confidence in my abilities, not to mention showing me where I can use more practice. This mock search also gave other SAR members experience with planning a search.