Students, Geezers looking for Search and Rescue volunteers

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If you get lost in a New Mexico wilderness, don’t expect the police to find you. You are more likely to be rescued by a volunteer — and more are needed.

Chuck Baker, search and rescue field coordinator, said search and rescue volunteers need only be over 18 years old with good health and a reasonable comfort level with the outdoors.

Baker explained during an interview Jan. 23 that search and rescue is conducted differently in New Mexico than in surrounding states, where it is a function of county sheriff’s departments. In this state, search and rescue, or SAR, missions are carried out by teams of unpaid individuals who spend their own time, as well as money, to outfit themselves with equipment and get the necessary training to rescue lost people.

The New Mexico Search and Rescue Act governs how lost people are found, starting with the creation of a SAR resource officer position — the only paid SAR employee in the state.

New Mexico State Police have authority over search and rescue missions. Any NMSP officer can serve as a mission initiator, but SAR volunteers manage and carry out the searches. A mission initiator is the person who decides whether there is adequate cause to mobilize a SAR effort.

Baker estimated SAR teams in NMSP District 11 respond to three or four incidents per year within the district. District 11 comprises Socorro, Catron and Sierra counties and is larger than nine U.S. states, but only two SAR teams currently serve the district. They are the Socorro SAR, made up of mainly New Mexico Tech students, and the Catron County SAR, also known as The Geezer Squad, so named because members’ ages range from 55 to 83. Baker, a Datil resident, is a member of the latter, but said both teams are interested in recruiting more volunteers.

Baker joined the Catron County SAR in early 2003 in part because he was inspired by the team’s president, Mike Murray, who was 73 at the time.

“I enrolled on the spot,” Baker said.

Murray, now 83, is still president of Catron County SAR.

Since joining the SAR team, Baker said he’s found a lot of neat places to hike while out on missions, as well as enjoyed opportunities to practice wilderness skills such as using GPS and tracking.

Daniel Hoff, team leader of Socorro SAR, joined the team during his freshman year at Tech in the fall of 2007.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Hoff said during an interview Thursday. “I tend to be a section chief on most searches so I kind of get stuck at incident base, running the mission, but it’s still a lot of fun. And our guys who go out in the field have a lot of fun too.”

“Incident base,” a term used in the Incident Command System, in this case refers to the base a SAR team sets up to direct the search, and is usually a location near where the missing person was last known to be. Baker explained SAR teams utilize the Incident Command System, a management tool adopted by the federal government and emergency responders that allows different agencies to work smoothly together under one command structure.

Hoff took over team leadership of Socorro SAR in 2008, during a time the team was dismantled for lack of membership.

“From then we have grown and are an active state resource again,” Hoff said.

Hoff expects to graduate in December, but said the team has a couple of “gung-ho” members who are willing to step up and lead.

Hoff said Socorro SAR wants to recruit more non-student volunteers so the team has members to respond to missions during semester breaks when many students are out of town. He said during school breaks, about half the team is gone. The team has been completely inactive during some summers because nobody was around.

Hoff said the team recently changed their meeting location from the Tech campus to the Presbyterian Community Education Center in order to be more accessible to the community at large, and hopefully recruit some non-student volunteers.

Socorro SAR currently has 10 active members, nine of them students and one a hospital employee. Hoff noted there are five or six additional members who are not yet on the active call list, which requires a certain level of wilderness training.

Baker said Catron County has 15 members on its SAR roster, and usually about five or six show up when a mission is called. The Geezer Squad would like to freshen its ranks with some younger members, but volunteers of any age are welcome.

“We can’t have too many people,” Baker said.

Baker said teams in Albuquerque or Las Cruces might have 35 to 50 volunteers, though not all of them respond to every incident.

Baker said when new members join, SAR teams start training them in basic wilderness skills like map reading, using a compass, using GPS and operating a radio. New members are also provided a list of supplies they would need on a mission. The Socorro SAR has the list posted on the team’s website at http://infohost.nmt.edu/~ssar under the “Membership” tab.

Members are responsible for having their own adequate clothing and equipment, but they are not expected to go out and buy expensive equipment like radios or GPS devices.

“That’s why we (The Geezer Squad) became a nonprofit, so we can raise money for things like that,” Baker said.

Hoff said Socorro SAR looked into nonprofit status, but it was too costly to be worthwhile as the Socorro team’s expenses are very low.

Baker said the SAR teams don’t want people to hold back from volunteering because they can’t afford to buy wilderness equipment. He said equipment can be purchased over time, just as training happens over time.

“We’re so happy to have anyone volunteer that we want to make it as easy as possible,” Baker said.

Hoff mentioned Socorro SAR has some loaner equipment for new members.

Baker said the public at large is welcome to attend SAR meetings and trainings, particularly if one is interested in volunteering.

“We extend an open invitation to anyone who would like to come on trainings or come to meetings,” Hoff said. “We would prefer if they’re interested in joining Search and Rescue, obviously.”

Hoff and Baker both mentioned the SARs need many volunteers, even people who don’t want to go hiking through the wilderness. Both said there are numerous tasks for volunteers to do at incident base that have nothing to do with hiking.

Donations to Catron County SAR are tax deductible. Anyone interested in donating can email Baker at chuck.baker@nmsar.org, call Murray at (575) 772-5809 or send a donation to Catron County Search and Rescue, P.O. Box 487, Datil, NM 87821.

Baker said donations can also be made to the parent organization, the New Mexico Search and Rescue Council. Further information is available at the council’s website, www.nmsarc.org.

 

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