It is not unusual for active residents and retirees in Sedona and Verde Valley communities to come across one another in multiple volunteer organizations and activity groups. The cross-feed between Friends of the Forest and the Verde Search and Rescue Posse dates to the early days of both organizations several decades ago. For individuals seeking challenging and purposeful outdoor activity, new skills, and service to the community and our public lands, both organizations are a natural fit.
Reports and photos of rescues of hikers in distress are all too common as front-page news in our area. Many such rescues are performed by professionals from Yavapai or Coconino County Sheriffs’ Offices, Departments of Public Safety, local Fire Districts and other agencies. Verde Search and Rescue, or VSAR, is another important participant in these efforts. VSAR is an all-volunteer nonprofit operating under the direction of the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office.
There are 34 volunteers in VSAR and they are on call 24/7. VSAR volunteers have contributed 4,000 hours to search and rescue activities and training so far this year. During the recent Arizona Stay Home Order and in days since, there have been fewer visitors to our surrounding National Forest lands but the calls for VSAR support have remained steady. Of the 32 VSAR-supported searches/rescues year to date, 22 have occurred since mid-March as these emergency services are considered an essential activity.
Most of us are not aware of the training and preparation required for the response that kicks into gear when a call to 911 involves a missing or distressed hiker. Although VSAR volunteers are not involved in highly technical rescues or severe medical emergencies, their training and practice is intensive. “Training is a continuous process”, said VSAR GPS Instructor Peg Kern. “It includes land navigation, GPS, search tactics, tracking, map and compass, CPR, First Aid, wilderness survival and helicopter safety, and leads to a State of Arizona Search and Rescue Certification.”
A typical VSAR call out occurs when a hiker calls 911 to report he is lost or needs help. The call is referred to the Sheriff’s Office where a determination is made for the type of response. If VSAR hikers are called out, a team of 2-4 volunteers is deployed, usually within 30 minutes, to a base of operation in the vicinity of the subject’s probable location. The VSAR hikers commence the search while maintaining radio contact with a Deputy Sheriff at the base. When the subject is located, his condition is assessed, food, water and medical treatment provided if needed, and the subject is escorted back to the base. In some situations, assistance is needed to get a subject to safety or a medical facility and additional posse members or a DPS helicopter are called out.
VSAR Captain Tim Anderson said, “A major difference with today’s search and rescue process, versus 5-10 years ago, is that most hikers have cell phones so they can call for help. And importantly, the cell phone can also provide the GPS location of the subject. Most of the time the searchers know where to navigate to find the subject rather than scouting multiple trails and off-trail areas.”
Many search and rescue cases in our area are preventable. Despite the training and GPS technology, these first responders face risks. Members carry a 25-pound pack with gear for themselves and potential subjects, and to be self-sufficient for up to 24 hours in the field. A quarter of rescues take place at night. Some last a couple of hours while others may last several days. Many rescues are conducted under extremes of weather. Simple precautions by hikers, such as carrying a map or GPS, sufficient water, food and clothing, researching a route in advance and hiking early in the day, can reduce rescue incidents.
Our community and visitors are fortunate that some three dozen residents have chosen VSAR as a path to engage and serve. The organization is currently expanding its capabilities with the addition of search dog and mountain bike search units. Becoming a posse member of VSAR is a serious commitment. Member Al Cornell has taken that commitment very seriously. Following a 30-year Army career, Al has served VSAR for 25 years. “I found a place to put my skills to good use”, Cornell said. The reward for volunteers is being part of a high functioning and professional team that provides life-saving capabilities to visitors and our community.
VSAR is a 501(c)(3) organization funded solely by its volunteers and outside donations. Staying current with equipment and supplies is a significant challenge. Tax-deductible donations to the organization can be made through the VSAR website at https://verdesar.org.