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.
July 3, 2012
An All-Nighter in Ashfork
But then, two minutes later, Cindy, our K9 handler, called me directly. Our Coordinator was requesting the dogs, and would I be her backer, she asked? *sigh* Okay, for Cindy I would go. So, I met her at the SAR building about 20 minutes later and loaded my gear into her vehicle to the tune of three excited Golden Retrievers. They'd already hiked several miles earlier that day, but they still seemed rearing to go. The two of us two-legged creatures, though? Not so much.
We got our brief briefing -- a 70-year-old gentleman with what sounded like a moderate level of dementia (possibly Alzheimer's) had now been missing nearly 24 hours after driving someone else's vehicle to the very rural area where he lives, then left the vehicle in the trees near a dirt road and walked off. This was not the first time he'd gotten lost while trying to go home.
Cindy and I left the building ahead of our teammates, as they got some additional gear ready. We were supposed to rendezvous with two deputies, who were at the location where the abandoned vehicle had been found. That was now the Initial Planning Point (or IPP). From there, we would begin our search with the dogs, and the other volunteers would soon follow.
When we found our way to the waiting deputies through a network of dusty roads and jackrabbits (actually managed not to hit any as they streaked across the murky beams from the headlights), we consulted with them (the deputies that is, not the rabbits) about what had -- and had not -- been found and determined the area we thought was the highest probability. Then it was time to let the excited dogs out to do their thing: search.
"Your assignment," Cindy half-whispered to the three wet noses that turned her way, "should you choose to accept it ... is ..." After the usual dramatic pause, she shouted, "Go find!" Three golden tails shot off into the dark as we followed much more slowly. We would walk the grid, and the dogs would range around us as we moved.
As the backer, it was my job to handle radio communications, navigate the grid within our search area given the information from Cindy about wind direction and instructions about how she wanted to work the dogs, and keep us all on track. "Go a little more left," I would say. Then, "Turn a bit more to the right," as I stayed behind and to the side of Cindy, trying to make a pretty little grid on my GPS while still looking around.
In the light of my headlamp, obscured by the dust we were kicking up as we walked across bone-dry ground, I tried to manage the topo map and my GPS without walking into a pinion, juniper or Ponderosa pine or tripping on rocks, dips, and forest debris. Needless to say, on more than a few occasions I had to say to Cindy, "I need to stop to get this figured out. I can't walk and try to read a map and GPS at the same time." Yeah, I was moving and searching and calling the subject's name, but I was cranky too.
I was also still frustrated, because it had taken awhile for me to get myself oriented that night, out there in the fairly flat and, aside from one major drainage, often featureless, forested terrain. Even when I had my map oriented to the way I was facing, the mental picture was alluding me. And the frustration only confused me more.
After talking to myself, though -- aloud for anyone to hear -- and working it out ("Okay, this is that road," I said, pointing towards my feet and then to the map, "and this is that road ... so, okay, we're right here, and we want to go that way....") the mental picture finally appeared and cleared. So, on my mark, we were ready to go.
And then Cindy gave the dogs their little "your assignment" shpeel. (See, I still have things all messed up.)
Anyhow, this whole K9 handler/backer thing is SO much about communication, and though we sometimes get cranky -- one or both of us at the same time -- Cindy and I really have learned how to talk things out, to problem-solve and reason and get back on track when we get a bit off. We've also worked through temporary miscommunication and misunderstanding without getting all unglued. The more we work together, the better we get as a team. I like that!
Well, long story just a little shorter, we did lots of walking throughout the night and into the next morning. We also did lots of calling out for the subject. The dogs worked their tails off. And we saw, to our pleasure, that one of Cindy's dogs, who'd originally been trained as a tracking/trailing dog and later switched over to air-scenting, reverted to tracking/trailing when the opportunity -- human scent on the ground -- presented itself. And, sure enough, we found footprints. Good dog!
But we weren't the ones who actually found the subject. It was a friend of his who found him, safe and asleep in the corner of a room in his own home, just after Cindy and I were released to return to Flagstaff later that morning. The man we'd been looking for for nearly 12 hours had apparently found his house sometime during the night, after the friend who was supposed to stay in case the man showed up, had left to return to his own home.
Well, all was well enough that ended well. The man was okay and, for now at least, home safe.
A couple of hours later, after insisting to Jeremy that I can't sleep during the day, I was fast asleep on the living room floor.
There is an interesting relationship between a handler and their runner. One of trust and tribulation it seems. As a runner I can attest to often questioning the mental state of the handler I work with as they can never seem to decide where they need me. I can clearly remember one search ( ok it was just last year) where had it not been for the fact that she ran me into the ground I may very well have strangled her. Of course popping out of the woods right onto the trail in front of the seven lost subjects (navy personnel) made it all the better.
There are fewer things more satisfying or interesting than working with a k9 sar dog team in my opinion. For all the times i'm hiding for them in some bug ridden swamp I think back to all the people they have found and the waiting seems all the easier.
I look forward to each new blog post that you write. Keep it up.
- Stephen Cue
Nova Scotia, Canada
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