New Search and Rescue offices

Sgt. Aaron Dick of the Coconino County Search and Rescue unit shows off SAR's new offices last week. The mostly volunteer-run organization got new facilities adjacent to the LEAF building from which to run their operations. (Josh Biggs/Arizona Daily Sun)

Josh Biggs

The red ribbon was finally cut on the new home of the Coconino County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue Unit on Saturday, bringing to a close a nearly decade-long effort to modernize and collect all the unit's resources under one roof.

The new facility allows SAR personnel to meet, train and coordinate in the same building where all of their equipment is housed.

"I think this will really enhance workflow," said Search and Rescue Coordinator Sgt. Aaron Dick. "Now we'll be in one location."

Construction on the new home for the mostly volunteer force began in 2004, when the pavement was first poured. But construction soon stalled when financing dried up. The actual structure wasn't completed until 2008, and the finishing touches are still being put on the offices and work areas.

REGIONAL TRAINING CENTER

The entire project was originally estimated to cost around $1.5 million for the 14,000-square-foot building and offices that serve as a regional training center.

The warehouse is lined with all manner of survival and rescue gear, from a small fleet of snowmobiles and ATVs to avalanche and mountain rescue gear. Attached is a large meeting room with big-screen TVs and projectors for monitoring events.

"We can coordinate a big event easier," Dick said. "It's nice to have a room that's ours kind of dedicated to that purpose."

The new facility also has a kitchen, so the Sheriff's Office will be able to feed its volunteers in the event of a large disaster like an airliner crash. It also has an office facility for SAR coordinators, as well as a media room for briefing the press and family liaisons. There's also a work area for printing large topographical maps before searches.

SAR has about 140 volunteers who contribute approximately 8,000 hours of their time each year. Each volunteer is required to put in at least 50 hours of time a year, but many commit much more than that.

Recently, SAR has held training in the nearby Law Enforcement Administration Facility. That has required personnel to do the classroom component of their training and then walk over to the warehouse to see the equipment. Before that, the facilities were on the east side.

Nearly half of the time that volunteers contribute is spent in training, allowing them to prepare for the most intense of rescues, such as the 30-hour effort to retrieve a climber from Oak Creek's remote Insomnia Canyon last August.

The man had fallen more than 700 feet in different segments, and it took dozens of rescuers to pull the man out safely.

"We're really fortunate to be one of the best-supported SAR units in the Southwest," Dick said.

The volunteers belong to a nonprofit organization so that families of those they've rescued, as well as the community, can donate to SAR, which does not charge those they save.

Those donations help pay for equipment and resources.

"It's a big milestone for Search and Rescue," said Coconino County Sheriff Bill Pribil, "but we still need a climbing tower and a mezzanine."

The county's SAR unit became a fully accredited technical rescue team earlier this year after passing a series of tests administered by the oldest search and rescue group in the United States, the International Mountain Rescue Association.

Eric Betz can be reached at 556-2250 or ebetz@azdailysun.com.

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