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Four vehicles with 13 people and five dogs get stuck on a Forest Road south of Lake Mary Road on Christmas Day.

Two woodcutters find themselves stranded and unprepared in deep snow off Devil Dog Road.

A 250 pound man on the Humphreys Trail hurts his knee and can't make it back down the mountain.

A snowboarder goes out of bounds at the Arizona Snowbowl and gets lost.

All four scenarios have one common theme: The stranded people and animals were found and taken to safety by the Coconino County Search and Rescue unit.

And all members of the unit are not only volunteers. They pay for the privilege of joining.

NO FUNDS FOR MANDATE

Per a state law passed in 1971, all counties in Arizona are required to provide search and rescue units through their respective sheriff's offices, said former Coconino County SAR coordinator Randy Servis.

Problem was, the state did not provide any funding for the mandate.

Sgt. Aaron Dick, the current SAR coordinator, said that it would be impossible for a relatively small county like Coconino to staff a search and rescue unit with full-time employees — the cost would be prohibitive.

Dick added that more than 90 percent of all SAR units across the country are staffed with volunteers. Dick, who started out as a volunteer and now works for the sheriff's office, is the only paid employee.

In fact, Capt. Howard Nott said the Flagstaff unit members pay annual dues of $25. The Flagstaff unit is an incorporated nonprofit organization that is allowed to accept donations in order to function

Lt. Ken Herron of the unit said, laughing, "Not only do we do it for free, we pay to do it." The captain and lieutenant designations for Nott and Herron refer to their positions on the nonprofit's board of directors.

The Flagstaff unit currently has 79 volunteers, Nott said. A mounted unit, not affiliated with the Flagstaff nonprofit, has another 43 members. A separate Page unit has another dozen members, Nott said.

The volunteers come from all walks of life but with a deep desire to help in their community, Dick said (see related story).

On a typical mission, Dick said that about 15 percent of the members called can respond for immediate duty. But if a mission lasts more than several hours, more people become available to offer breaks to the volunteers initially in the field.

Nott said a search group typically meets at the facility where the equipment is kept, comes up with a game plan on what equipment and talents will be needed, then heads into the field where the search is to be conducted.

Dick coordinates the search, typically from an incident command center in the field.

BEFORE WORLD WAR II

Servis, who got his start with SAR right out of high school in 1981, said he believes SAR in Coconino County has been around since the days of Sheriff Perry Francis, who was sheriff from 1936 to 1941.

"It was pretty much a formal group in the '60s and with the formal statute coming into play in 1971," Servis said.

The Legislature enacted the law following a Four Peaks incident involving a 12 year old boy, Servis said. Because multiple agencies could not agree on who should be assigned the responsibility to look for the boy, the boy died.

The Flagstaff group incorporated in 1972, shortly after the law was enacted, thus exempting SAR members from personal liability. In the same year, groups in Williams and Sedona also incorporated, Servis said. The Sedona and Williams units dissolved in early 1990s.

Servis said some of the first SAR members included Melvin and Janet Rumner, adding that there were several husband wife teams in the unit in the early days. The men would be conducting the search while the women would staff the radios and run the camps. SAR members are a much more diverse group of people now, Servis said.

One of the longtime SAR members included a former owner of the Little America Hotel, Bob Buttons, Servis said. Buttons was instrumental in helping the SAR unit find a permanent home.

Buttons donated some land owned by the hotel on the east side of the city. And in 1975, volunteers began fundraising efforts in earnest. Contractors donated time and materials and the city donated a water line, Servis said.

The building, near the Nestle Purina plant, was occupied until the nonprofit sold the building in 2003 to help fund the construction of a new SAR building at the Law Enforcement Administrative Facility.

That new building is still under construction and has been so for more than four years. It continues to remain unfinished (see Monday story). Meanwhile, the unit's equipment is temporarily housed in a county building on the far east side of the city.

DIFFERENT TALENTS

The Coconino County SAR unit is made up of three distinct parts that have multiple disciplines, Nott said.

Within the SAR Flagstaff Unit, Inc., there are the general SAR members. These members are able to operate several types of equipment in conducting searches and know how to navigate through terrain using GPS, compass, maps and other means of navigation.

The Technical Rescue Team is made up of members who specialize in high angle rescue situations. The team is trained in rock climbing, rappelling and doing rescues from a helicopter.

Because northern Arizona has the San Francisco Peaks and a variety of environments that are snow covered, the Flagstaff unit also has an Alpine Team, which is able to conduct snow and ice rescues.

The Flagstaff unit is also able to perform swift water rescues and even has a Canine Unit for tracking.

The SAR Mounted Unit conducts much of the same duties as the Flagstaff Unit, but on horseback. Horses are able to go into some areas inaccessible to mechanized, according to information from the sheriff's office.

Anybody interested in becoming a SAR volunteer can apply, Nott said. New member intakes happen every fall. Potential volunteers must be able to pass a background check and undergo interviews from veteran members.

Dick said potential volunteers must be willing to perform long, hard work during nights, in bad weather and even on holidays.

The ultimate decision whether a volunteer is accepted is up to Sheriff Bill Pribil, Dick added.

Larry Hendricks can be reached at 556 2262 or lhendricks@azdailysun.com.

On the Web

For more information on the Coconino County Search and Rescue unit, or to download an application, visit: http://www.coconinosar.org

Search and Rescue by the numbers

2006

Calls for service: 135

Calls requiring SAR volunteers: 44

Volunteer hours on missions: 2,664

*Cost saved to sheriff's office: $42,185

2007

Calls for service: 240

Calls requiring SAR volunteers: 79

Volunteer hours on missions: 5271

*Cost saved to sheriff's office: $83,447

*Reflects standard starting deputy pay of $15.83 an hour.

Source: Coconino County Sheriff's Office Search and Rescue

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They love the outdoors — and service

By LARRY HENDRICKS

Assistant City Editor

When asked why they would go traipsing around the forest looking for lost people for free, SAR volunteers typically say they'd be out in the forest traipsing around anyway.

Ken Herron, 41, is a lieutenant in the nonprofit Flagstaff Search and Rescue, Inc., and has been a member for 17 years.

"I started the summer Danny Horning turned up missing from prison," Herron said.

He had talked to a SAR member about searching for the convicted murderer, who escaped from an Arizona prison and evaded capture for nearly two months.

"I said to myself, 'That's cool.'" Herron said, adding that the stories of the searches were the hook for him.

Herron, who works for a living as a pharmacy tech, is a tracker, conducts technical high angle and alpine rescues and is also an instructor for the unit. In 2008, he logged 360 hours of volunteer time with about 120 of those hours in the field on missions.

"I would be doing it anyway for fun, but now I'm doing it to help people," Herron said.

And helping people is the priority, said Capt. Howard Nott, 65, of the unit.

"When we bring them out alive, there is no greater thing," said Nott, who is a retired Ph.D. pharmacologist.

But even when they do not find people alive, Nott said, "We take pride and relief in the fact that we found them and got them home.

In a typical year Nott logs about 600 hours of volunteer work, with about half devoted to missions. The other half is devoted to helping maintain equipment and meeting with other departments and organizations.

As Herron found out, all the members have their stories of searches, Nott said. Herron and Nott remembered a search in December 2005 that turned into a body recovery. A Swedish man left a mental health facility in Wickenburg, and his vehicle was found in a remote area on the Twin Arrows Road.

Herron said he tracked the man's footprints, then started finding articles of the man's clothes. Eventually, he was tracking the man's bare feet, and it led to his body.

Nott recalled the search of a 15-year-old hunter, who had gotten lost in the Mormon Mountain area. The searchers had a containment area and were running the trails and roads blowing horns and whistles and sirens to get the boy to gravitate toward them.

At 7 a.m. the next day, the boy found the searchers. Nott said the boy, during the night, had buried himself under some leaves and had in earplugs listening to music. He never heard the noise, which was nearby.

Herron said all members must be ready to go at a moment's notice and be able to be self sustaining for at least 24 to 36 hours. Packs must have emergency kits, a sufficient amount of food and water, a small stove, navigational aids, lights and more.

"The idea is if I send you over this hill … you need to make sure you have enough to be comfortable," Herron said.

Nott said that all members bring their own gear to a mission.

The members come from all walks of life and have a broad range of life experience and backgrounds, Nott added. Some are carpenters, outdoor enthusiasts, medical staff, emergency medical technicians, students and more. Some have dozens of years of SAR experience, and some are still fresh in the training process.

New member Robert Hernandez, 50, who works for the county Public Works Department, joined with his girlfriend Marty Walch.

"We spend lots of time outdoors anyway," Hernandez said. "And we felt it would be good just to do something good for people."

As of mid November, Hernandez had been on two missions. Both ended successfully with finding two lost hikers in Sedona, and finding two hikers lost by Marshall Lake after the season's first snow.

Hernandez said he plans to stay with the unit for a while.

"As long as they'll have me," he said laughing.

Larry Hendricks can be reached at 556 2262 or lhendricks@azdailysun.com.

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