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.

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SAR Ops: A Different Perspective

It's one thing to learn about search and rescue operations ("ops") and the Incident Command System (ICS) in the classroom and do table-top exercises with other SAR ops students—it's quite another to actually do those things... or assist, anyway... in the field.

Although I've responded to a few ops leader call-outs for mission startups (to help the coordinator before a general call-out is made), I had my first "real" chance to help with field ops during our team's recent mock search for the annual new member SAR Academy. Actually, I was asked to lead the exercise, and, though I didn't have the experience necessary to act as Incident Commander, even on a "pretend" mission, I agreed to step up and do it. I wanted to jump in and get some of that real ops experience, mock search or not.

The purpose of this field exercise, held at the end of the SAR Academy, is to give new members an idea of what an actual mission is like, beginning with receiving the call/email/text message call-out, phoning in to the SAR line with their name and badge number, and responding to the SAR building. Then it's a matter of getting all equipment, radios, and SAR vehicles ready to go and receiving a briefing and their strike team (or task force) assignments. From there, students work with their team members in the field, including navigating and handling radio communications, and documenting and relaying information about clues. Once the subject(s) is/are found, the students come up with an evacuation plan and move the subject(s) out of the field, back to base. Finally, they debrief and go through other aspects of wrapping up a mission, particularly the "hasty" search phase, which is when the majority of missing or overdue subjects are located. The field exercise gives new members a chance, with the help of experienced team members, to put together all the skills they've learned during the SAR Academy and put them to practical use.

All I can say is, I'm grateful for the help and support of several members of the team who have a lot more ops experience than I do. While I was able to facilitate the planning (I'm good at sending out emails!) and help carry out this field exercise, which was a search for two overdue subjects in a wooded area near Flagstaff, there was much I didn't know how to do or that would have taken me too long to figure out on my own. For example, I didn't know how to work the computer program to create the specific maps we needed for the briefing packets; I would have taken a lot longer to come up with assignments for all of the field teams, both ground SAR and mounted, on my own; and I would have been overwhelmed as the IC (incident commander). So many things going on all at once, and many of those things in constant flux.

To expect that a mission—even a mock mission where we plan the locations for our "missing" subjects to be found—will go off just as planned from beginning to end would be to expect the nearly impossible, as I see it. I could lie there in bed at 2 a.m., as I did one night when I couldn't sleep, and imagine the whole thing, from call-out to debrief at the conclusion of the search, as a nice, orderly mental movie. In reality, things didn't go quite as I'd imagined (or planned), starting right from that call-out, which was sent to new members and those experienced team members who'd volunteered to help as "observers."

After the call-out was finally made at 8:10 a.m., it took longer than expected for everyone to arrive at the SAR building. And an assignment was changed last minute. And the unpaved Forest Service road the mounted unit members had to drive with their horse trailers and horses to get to their starting point turned out to be in much worse shape than expected (compared to the last time any of us were out there). And the shuttling of ground-pounder strike teams was rather complex and time-consuming. (Did I mention some of those roads are really bad?) And that "jeep track" on the map—the one where I instructed one of our subjects to leave a clue she was given and then, further along that jeep track, to hang out with her mock ankle injury and wait to be found and rescued—well, that jeep track wasn't really there anymore, so she couldn't find it.  And the list goes on.

One thing I had some good practice at during this process was delegating. In some cases, I didn't have to ask. The team members who helped me with the planning gladly offered to take on tasks, and I went from one person to the other, looking over their shoulders, helping where I could, asking questions, and listening and watching and learning. Then, when the call-out was made, we had the added help from those experienced observers, who gave direction to the new folks as they arrived at the building, helped them understand their assignments and find their starting points on the maps, directed them in loading equipment and preparing to leave the bay, and assisted with all other aspects of the mission.

Me? Oh, I ran around. A lot. I shuttled searchers and eventually the Stokes litter and medical supplies to the evac team. And I assisted at Incident Command as information came in over the radio and teams in the field asked for direction as the search went on. I didn't do any hiking that day, but, wow, when I got home I felt like I'd walked miles.

All in all, the field exercise went well, and I think (hope) all new members got something useful out of it. Actually, I'm sure they did, including better understanding the fact that we all need to be flexible during missions because things are continuously changing and that sometimes we get assignments that may seem "boring" or "useless" but are actually vital to the mission, including doing containment and also finding out where a missing person is not.  There were new members who actually said those things to me—that the field exercise helped them realize those aspects of search and rescue—and that definitely was good to hear.

So, I'm holding on to the briefing packet and the notes I made this time around and want to participate with planning and ops again next year, hopefully by then with more confidence and skills I can bring to the table.

One thing's for sure: I now have an even better appreciation for how challenging SAR ops is and really admire those who can handle sometimes very stressful and complex missions so well. It can be easy to comment from a searcher's point of view on how things are managed and carried out, but putting myself even just somewhat in the position of a SAR ops leader has given me a whole new perspective. Not to mention the desire to get a whole lot better at it.