For the last three decades, a group of dedicated volunteers has been on the front lines of searches for missing and stranded persons in Cochise County, sacrificing their time and energy for those they’ve never met.
Days before a private, low-key celebration of the team’s 30th anniversary on Saturday, a number of long-standing Search and Rescue members spoke about their time with the team, which was started at the behest of Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, then a sergeant, and organized with the help of Manny Gomez.
When Jim Fusco came on board in 1999, it was partly because he thought it would be a good opportunity to further his hobby of hunting down and documenting old World War II aviation crash sites in southern Arizona.
Like other volunteers, Fusco said he soon found out that his experiences in a seemingly unrelated field would become beneficial to the group and its goals.
“Having an understanding of aircraft and the dynamics of what happens in crashes, it gave me a bit of an advantage with what we were seeing and what we were doing,” he said. “It’s amazing how the two go hand-in-hand. They’re both about looking for clues.”
Each of the four dozen or so members of the team come from a variety of backgrounds and joined for any number of reasons, but what they do have in common is a shared sense of responsibility toward the people in their community.
“The sum is definitely more than the individual parts,” said Dan Riley.
A retired electronics engineer and Air Force retiree, Riley joined up in the late ’80s and, after moving away for two decades to complete his career, reunited with the team after returning to the area in the latter part of the last decade.
“I was doing a lot of vertical rescue and high-angle rescue back in those days,” he said, referring to his initial years with the team.
When he returned to the area in 2009, his experience working in radio communications proved a perfect fit for the team, he said.
Knowing that simply being able to walk in the desert for long periods of time is not the only skill with any value is one thing that makes the search and rescue team so good at what it does, Riley said
“They recognize that everyone can make a contribution. You don’t have to be Rambo to make a good contribution to search and rescue,” he said.
Using those resources properly is just as essential.
Conducting a proper rescue or search operation “takes some management,” Huntoon said.
He highlights the point by recalling a mission from his initial years with the team.
In October 2000, a 3-year-old boy went missing in the desert east of Safford in Graham County.
Search and Rescue had been called in to assist, along with other resources from around the state, including tracking dogs.
As the dogs approached the area the boy was last seen, a low-flying helicopter, which had been assisting in the search, made a pass over the area, dispersing any trace of the boy’s scent.
“You have to know the aspects of your resources and not mix them inappropriately,” he said, noting the boy was found hours later, unharmed.
Over these past few decades, the search and rescue team has had plenty of opportunities to put the various aspects of its training into practice, like swift water and tactical rope rescue.
“In the last 30 years, this group has done everything,” he said.
“You have to be self-motivated and a go-getter, because you’re not getting paid for it,” Riley said.
While Search and Rescue members may not be collecting paychecks, their efforts are far from unrewarding, Fusco said.
When every action you take can mean the difference between life and death for one poor soul, “almost everything else you do in life pales in comparison,” he said.
“I’m doing something for my community and fellow human beings, and there’s a reward there you can’t put dollars and cents on.”
The situations one can find themselves in while a part of the team are unlike any other, said Fusco.
He thought back to a helicopter-aided rescue in Cochise Stronghold about seven years ago that had him stepping off from the vehicle in midair to assist a 17-year-old stranded hiker.
“There was no place to land up there since it was nothing but rocks and steep canyons,” he said.
“When I was getting out on that skid on the side of the helicopter, I can remember thinking ‘what am I getting myself into?’ ”
Like most of their other rescues, that mission also ended successfully.
The happy conclusion of a mission is a feeling unlike anything else, the volunteers said.
“Your payback is knowing that you helped someone who really needed it,” Riley said. “It can be hard to describe.”
Retired Sierra Vista Firefighter Tom Fair has been working with the Search and Rescue team for years, starting in the late ’80s.
“There’s a very gratifying, humbling feeling when you’re done,” Fair said. “You’re working as a team. Nobody is the main player.”
It was a point that was returned to and emphasized by each volunteer: the selflessness of the Search and Rescue volunteer.
“These are the most dedicated, thoughtful people I’ve ever known,” Huntoon said.
“It’s like a big family, that’s how we operate.”
In order to be a successful volunteer with search and rescue, Fusco said, “You really do have to care about people and want to do something and make a difference in your community.”