Steve Ranson
Members of the Churchill County Search and Rescue Team, kneeling from left, are Sam Dockery and Jeff Bowlsby. Standing from left are Nancy Upham, Art Merrill, John McArthur, Tom Dockery, Marlene Bowlsby, Zip Upham, Jason Gardner, Walt Stacy, Rebecca Ponder, Pam Horsley, Jason Livingston, Debbie Jones and Garrett Roosa.

They are the unsung heroes when saving lives.

The members come from all walks of life, yet when the call goes out, they travel the county’s roads and trails by assisting law enforcement, state or federal agencies or the military.

They are the volunteers of Churchill County Search and Rescue.

This dedicated group of individuals volunteers their time in conducting missions that may be the difference of life and death.

Zip Upham, president of the SAR, said the organization averages about eight searches a year.

“The average varies, but we’ll go six to seven months without any tasking, and then we’ll have two to three searches within a week and a half,” said Upham, who is also the public affairs officer at Naval Air Station Fallon.

He said SAR conducts searches when someone is missing in the desert, for example, or assists the Churchill County Sheriff’s Office in collecting or protecting evidence. Sometimes, though, the SAR will be requested to muster its members for a search, but on many occasions the members assemble and prepare their vehicles to move out from their airport headquarters, unless the request be rescinded. Upham said some situations resolve themselves.

He said during the past year SAR scoured the area looking for a local man who disappeared northeast of Fallon and Utah man who abandoned his car near Eastgate, about 55 miles east of Fallon. In both cases, Upham said the outcome resulted in the deaths of the two men.

Searches, though, produce happy endings. Upham said a couple became stranded when their vehicle bogged down in the soft sand past Indian Lakes, and SAR found them.

With Churchill County covering thousands of square miles, the task of locating a missing person becomes interesting.

“It’s more challenging when you don’t know where to start,” Upham said.

Although the situation didn’t occur in Churchill County, both Upham and Sheriff Ben Trotter said a stranded family did everything right when their vehicle rolled over on a dirt road in Pershing County in December. Upham said the most important thing the family did was stay with their vehicle and wait for help.

The SAR’s fleet is rather impressive for a small operation. SAR has several “hand-me-down” vehicles, and many members use their own vehicles. Upham said SAR also has access to ATVs and watercraft. Their arsenal of search and rescue vehicles make them a worthy partner for many agencies that have used their services and expertise.

“We have assisted with state parks at Lahontan and swift water rescue in Churchill County,” Upham said, noting the fire department is trained in recovering people and vehicles from the canals, for example.

When members are not called out, they are constantly training to improve their skills. In 2011, SAR became involved in a community-wide exercise called ARCO. Civilian and Naval Air Station Fallon assets conducted a drill in which responders tended to victims who were injured when a KC-135-type of plane crashed near the high school. A month later, the same responders mobilized to the site of a crash involving a big rig and Amtrak train in late June.

During a massive earthquake drill in western Nevada in June 2008, SAR teams practiced rescue operations by entering building and looking for victims.

At their meetings, members conduct training to keep them fresh on techniques or the role of an incident command.

SAR, though, does not rely on county funding, said Upham, who has been a member for more than 20 years. Instead, the organization depends on donations.

Trotter said Nevada Revised Statute states that each sheriff’s department must have SAR capability, but while other SAR teams receive their funding from the sheriff’s department budgets, Upham said SAR conducts several fundraising activities during the year to keep SAR afloat.

“We operate on the goodwill of the community,” Upham said.