PRESCOTT - Yavapai County is made up of over 8,000 square miles of some of the most beautiful and diverse land in the state of Arizona, and every year thousands of people, residents and visitors, get out to enjoy that land.
And every year, some of those people get into trouble while they're having fun.
That's when authorities call on the volunteers organized under the Yavapai County Sheriff's Office to help find them and get them out of trouble.
There are two basic groups: the Yavapai County Jeep Posse (YCJP), which responds in 4x4 vehicles, and the Yavapai County Search and Rescue Team (YCSRT), which includes a backcountry unit, mounted unit, scuba unit, a search dog unit, a quad unit and its own 4x4 unit.
Search & Rescue
More than 150 men and women are part of YCSRT, manager Paul Lyra said, and they're all highly-trained and well-equipped to save lives.
The only funding the group receives from the county is reimbursement for fuel costs, which means all the gear they use, from quads to horses to ropes, is paid for by the volunteers.
"Especially any of the backcountry equipment has to meet extreme safety standards," Lyra said. "In Yavapai County, when you see a search-and-rescue person hanging from a line on a helicopter, it is generally a YCSRT backcountry member.
"That line, their harnesses, their helmets, all have to be of the highest quality," he said.
About 20 percent of the members of the YCSRT have full-time jobs, with the remainder being made up of retirees.
"Many of the people are cross-trained within the units, so we provide a large resource pool for the Sheriff's Office when they request assistance," he said.
Training is rigorous. There's also a law enforcement background check.
Once they pass that check, new members start training with their chosen unit. They do hours of classroom work in first-aid, CPR, blood borne pathogen safety, and how to operate equipment associated with their unit.
"There's a tremendous amount of time invested in training by all the groups," Lyra said, noting that the technical rescue members - backcountry and search dog - likely do the most.
"They average a minimum of five trainings a month that can range from four hours to an eight-hour day," he said. "That's a significant commitment."
With the expense and the time devoted to training, you might reasonably ask why YCSRT members do the job for free. "There's a belief throughout the organization that when a person is in need ... that we believe it's our responsibility or duty to give them the best opportunity to survive," Lyra said. "It's just something that the men and women who volunteer to do this seem to have ingrained in their personality."
In his 10 years with the unit, Lyra has seen a lot, but the one call-out that immediately came to his mind was the 2010 search for Victoria Bensch, a 3-year-old girl missing overnight from her Cordes Lakes home. She was located with her dog after an all-night search when a DPS helicopter found her, but Lyra said her dog wouldn't allow a rescuer to come near.
"He called out to her, 'Vicki! Are you all right?' and she responded, 'My name is Victoria,'" he said with a chuckle.
More recently, Lyra was involved, as were many members of the YCSRT, in the search for 14-year-old Kadence Swift, reported lost near Lynx Lake on June 4 and located the next afternoon in good shape.
"When the Sheriff's Office calls, you're not going to find a more highly-trained, professional group of volunteers around," Lyra said.
The Jeep Posse, about 40 volunteer members strong, has two objectives: search and rescue, and they're also the team the sheriff relies on to help evacuate residents in case of natural disaster like a wildfire.
Posse member Jim Grimm has been working with the team for years, and says that, while members don't generally buy four-wheel drive vehicles just to join the Jeep Posse, they still need to invest in equipment. "A mounted radio which has all the frequencies for those agencies we work with" is the basic tool, but they also need a GPS system, safety equipment, recovery equipment, and first-aid gear, he said. "It's going to be close to $800 to $900" to outfit a vehicle.
"The members do have to contribute ... a lot out of their own pocket," Grimm said.
As with YCSRT, they also devote a good deal of time to learning rescue skills, including monthly re-currency training.
There's a need for Jeep Posse members who don't own a vehicle, because the members work in two-person teams, and some also operate a radio communications van.
No matter what role they play, though, members need to be ready to respond at any time.
The most common time for the Jeep Posse to respond is on a Sunday evening, Grimm said.
"You're called out in all types of weather, you're called out at any time at all," he said.
The group was also involved in the Kadence Swift search. The team was called at 8:30 p.m., and "a lot of the guys went home and slept for a couple of hours and came back and worked part of the day."
But they do it because "they're giving back to their community," Grimm said.
Saving Taxpayer Dollars and Saving Lives
The YSRT and YCJP volunteers are a great value to the Sheriff's Office.
"The savings alone to taxpayers in this county is enormous," spokesman Dwight D'Evelyn said. "For example, it is estimated the search at Lynx Lake recently involved more than 700 hours of volunteer time. If the same number of sheriff's personnel had been used exclusively during the search effort, the cost would have been in the thousands of dollars."
Sheriff Scott Mascher said, "The volunteers at YCSO are an invaluable resource to this agency and much of what we do could not be accomplished without their help."
For information on the YCSRT and how you can join visit ycsrt.org or call Paul Lyra at 928-771-3281. Jeep Posse information is available at ycjp.org or call Forrest Allen at 928-925-5803
Follow Scott Orr on Twitter @AZNewsguy. Reach him at (928) 445-3333 ext. 2038, or (928) 642-7705