Despite the chilly breeze Saturday morning, members of the Mohave County Search and Rescue were up and at it.
They were practicing for the inevitable. About 20 members of a SAR rope team were practicing knots, tying lines and rehearsing rescue techniques in a frigid shack at a training site. The group is part of about 120 unpaid volunteers who assist the Mohave County Sheriff’s Office by carrying out search and rescue missions and other duties as requested by Sheriff Doug Schuster and multiple state SAR coordinators.
Sgt. Les Tarkowski and Detective Joey McEuen are SAR coordinators overseeing the four county units, located in Kingman, Bullhead City, Lake Havasu City and the newly formed Arizona Strip detachment. These units serve the needs of over 200,000 residents and nearly 5 million visitors yearly.
“We’re very efficient,” Tarkowski said. “In my opinion, we’re one of the best in the state.”
How They Work
SAR has a command structure similar to a military unit. The Arizona Department of Emergency Management oversees all county SAR agencies. Tarkowski and McEuen oversee the Mohave County program. When called to action, respective area unit commanders contact any available members to respond.
The volunteers use many of their own resources, be it vehicles (The parking lot at Saturday’s training session near Horizon Boulevard and Route 66 looked like a Jeep dealership), tents, sleeping bags, first aid kits, food and water. The state reimburses their gas and workman’s compensation will cover a SAR member in the event of an injury. Most of the services are on the member’s own time and dedication.
“All this equipment is paid for out of pocket or from donations,” McEuen said.
Many of the members live in Las Vegas and will drive to Kingman for training and handle many of the Arizona Strip calls. All SAR crews are required to be self-sustainable for the first 24 hours of a mission even though 97 percent of SAR calls are resolved in that timespan.
“You have to plan for the future in the event the call goes longer than expected,” McEuen said.
Other than a minimum 21-year-old age limit, there aren’t many other qualifications other than the willingness to help the communities. Units will take an application, conduct a background check, vet the applicant and vote them into the unit. The next step is a 16-hour, two-day training academy at the MCSO Headquarters in Kingman.
Volunteers can get involved with one or more teams that include rope rescue, utility and all-terrain vehicles, swiftwater rescue, tracking and the command posts. Pending proper qualifications, a member can also work with the Arizona Department of Public Safety Ranger helicopters on rappel operations.
“We also have two guys going to Coconino County for snow training,” Tarkowski said.
What They Do
Tarkowski said springtime has a high volume of calls and most of them involve lost and stranded hikers in and around the Hualapai Mountains and Bull Mountain near Kingman. Standard Wash and SARA’s Crack in Lake Havasu City also get busy. They also have their hands full with swiftwater rescues on the Colorado River and from washes during heavy rains.
SAR tracking teams locate lost hikers, the occasional Alzheimer’s patient, and have even assisted law enforcement agencies tracking criminals.
“Tracking is very important to us,” Tarkowski said.
Volunteer Amanda Kaufman has been with SAR for four years as a rope team member, swiftwater rescue and EMT.
“You get to learn new stuff and get outside in some strange situations,” she said. “I just like to help others where I can.”
Prevention & Safety
Tarkowski and Kaufman both stressed the necessity of communication when venturing out into the wilderness. Although there are plenty of cell towers near populated areas, signals don’t often make it out of deep canyons or between remote mountain peaks. They said something as simple as sending a text or photo before hitting the trail could help SAR crews locate someone in the event they get lost.
“People go out with the impression their cellphones will work,” Tarkowski said.
“I always tell people to take selfies and post it (on social media),” Kaufman added.
They also said to call 911 – not the MCSO main office – in an emergency.
“They’ll receive GPS coordinates and more efficient data,” said Kaufman.
Always Needing Help
Extra help never hurts, and SAR is always looking for more. Most of the monetary donations pay for equipment such as ropes, medical kits, and food (should a call go into extended periods). SAR holds numerous fundraisers throughout the year to bolster their readiness.
“This gear is expensive,” Kaufman said. “That’s why we do so many fundraisers.”
Despite all the effort, Tarkowski is confident SAR crews will provide high quality service.
“These people are dedicated and the motivation is phenomenal,” he said.
To volunteer or donate, visit the MCSOSAR website at www.mohavesearch.com.