Last Sunday night I was asked if I would go up to the West Valley Fire Station and cover the training of the El Paso County Search and Rescue (SAR). It was supposed to be a one day assignment.
A quick in and out: and interview, and some photos. That’s what it was supposed to be.
Monday’s revelations led to my going back on Wednesday, on Thursday, and Friday. Why? I had no idea we had an SAR in El Paso, or even a clue as to what they did, or even why they did it.
Before this past week, when someone became lost or injured in the Franklins (and I still don’t fully understand just how you get lost in the Franklins) or Hueco Tanks I simply thought the Fire Department went up there, tied one end of a rope around a rock, and then lowered you.
Others I talked to had similar thoughts.
“I think it’s just the El Paso Fire Department,” said Jason. He was one of several people I asked about the SAR team. Amanda was another one I asked.
“It’s the Army, isn’t? They are the ones who rescue people out in Hueco.”
I had also envisioned helicopters swooping in, collecting everyone Hollywood-style, and flying off into the sunset. This past week has shown me that I really need to stop getting my ideas of what people really do from movies.
Stop laughing! That’s what I really thought. But then I was able to spend a lot of time with them and gained a whole new respect for our firemen and law enforcement officers.
The short story is that these guys are fricking cool! (Can I use “fricking” in an article? It’s there, so we all must live with that word choice).
Back to last Monday.
Chief Kris Menendez, from the Horizon Fire Department, began to educate me on the SAR Team, so I stuck around. I watched a couple of things instructional video they were showing, and I knew I was on for the long haul.
“The SAR team is a thirty-three man team…this training cycle is fifteen men taking a two-week, eighty-hour course,” Chief Menendez shared.
The El Paso County Search and Rescue are made of up men from Socorro Fire Department, Clint Fire Department, Horizon Fire Department, West Valley Fire Department, Montana Vista Fire Department, El Paso County Sheriff’s Department.
Each department may have its own unique personality – just like every individual involved – but they have one goal in mind: the SAR will come together, as one, to help whenever and wherever needed.
According to Chief Menendez, they will be ready to respond to any emergency that comes up. “We will be able to respond to swift-water rescue, someone in the cannels; flash-floods, individuals lost or injured in Hueco Tanks.”
After spending the week with them, I can honestly tell you that they are ready for anything.
When I first met this team of fifteen men, it was the start of their second week of training: mock rescues associated with becoming a rope technician.
To be on the El Paso County Search and rescue is no easy task. Personally, I know I could not be a part of the SAR team. Let me tell you what I witnessed over the past week.
The first thing I noticed was the co-operation between a group of fifteen men from a collection of very different agencies. I am sure you can think of any number of television shows where you see officers fight and argue over who has jurisdiction.
“Not only are your rescuers depending on you,” says Deputy Marc Chavez. “But so are the people you are trying to rescue. Pretty much you are putting their lives in your hands.” So you will not find anything but a single team with a single purpose.
Another thing I noticed, and one that most people seem to take for granted, or not fully understand, is the need to question everything. One of the videos I watched with them was from Reed Thorne.
Mr. Thorne is known in climbing and rescue circles as an authority. Having watched other videos of him, I know for a fact he knows his subject and is passionate about sharing it with others.
In that video, Mr. Thorne said to question everything, including your instructors. Not even one of these guys shied away from asking a question. Even if it seemed silly, they asked. They had to; lives hang in the balance when they are in the field conducting a rescue. That impressed me, their ability to admit they were unsure, or that they needed a bit of extra help.
It reassured me that these men are beyond dedicated to their job and mission.
Even I got into the spirit of learning. I began to pay more attention to what they were doing. I started asking questions and learned about what they do. More importantly, I learned why they do what they do.
Why do they do it?
“I like the fact that they go out and help people,” said Deputy Chavez. “That’s why I became a deputy in the first place. I want to go out into the public and help those who can’t help themselves.”
I like that attitude. Deputy Chavez summed up, in that statement why they do what they do. If you are stuck on a mountain, with a broken leg, how are you going to help yourself? If you are truly lost, and can’t find your way, who is going to be there to find you, treat you, and make sure you get back home. Truthfully, it most likely won’t be me.
Too often we want to hold members of the law enforcement community, and I include firefighters in this category, to a higher standard. Too many people want to hold them to a standard of conduct that none of us could live up to. But these men come close.
Every day, when a police officer or sheriff is responding to a fight in progress, a domestic violence call, or simply pulling a car over, they don’t know what they are going to be facing. Usually, everything is resolved, and no one is hurt.
When firefighters are going to a fully-involved fire, it’s the same thing. We may think they are just going to come with their trucks, spray water on everything, and the fire is done. It’s not that simple. Even they don’t know what they are facing when they respond.
Every day, during their normal duties, they are placing their lives on the line. Yet, when they get a call, as they did four times this past summer, to rescue someone in Hueco Tanks, they still don’t know what they are facing.
How will they get the injured party down? Where will they set up their equipment? How bad are their injuries?
Yet over the past week, I witnessed the instructors present these men with scenarios that would prepare them for anything. I’ve seen them, in the span of forty-five minutes, set up a very complicated system of ropes, pullies, harnesses, and rescue the victim during their exercises.
I have seen them face their fears, like one officer who had a fear of heights and emerge a better person, a stronger person than they were before.
The training is intense. Two weeks, eighty hours. It’s non-stop from the moment they arrive, and until they go home. Even their final was intense. An example would be when they were demonstrating how to tie knots and their safeties, they were only given one mistake.
Just one. If they couldn’t tie that knot the second time, that was it…the end.
Oh, when they are called out to rescue someone, it is on their time. It is something they do because they feel the need to help those who cannot help themselves, just like Deputy Chavez says.
On October 21st, Hueco Tanks will have their annual interpretive fair and they have invited the El Paso County Search and Rescue to set up a tent so that the community at large can learn about them.
After spending only a week with these men, they have earned my respect. They are heroes. Not only during their regular shift but also when they go out on a rescue.
I would like to invite you to go out and meet these men. Listen to them as they tell you what they do, and how they do it.