Search and Rescue Missions Keep Coordinator Busy

Search and Rescue Missions Keep Coordinator Busy

Search and rescue missions and training events: Canyon Lake, Wildcat Mountain, Pinal County, Illusions Canyon, White Tank Mountains

It was a late December night when Jesse Robinson’s cell phone rang. Robinson is the Search and Rescue (SAR) and Warning Coordinator for the Arizona Department of Emergency and Military Affairs (DEMA). He answered the call from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center (AFRCC) about a missing aircraft from Scottsdale airport. The AFRCC was able to ping the cell phones of the people on board to a remote area near Gila County.  Around the same time, the airplane’s emergency locator beacon activation was detected and reported to AFRCC. The Civil Air Patrol was activated to track the signal of the beacon. Robinson reached out to the Gila County SAR Coordinator, whose team responded.

“That mission is a great example of how different people and agencies come together at a moment’s notice without rehearsal to accomplish a common goal,” said Robinson, who could tell many stories like the one above. A request for assistance could come at any time, day or night and Robinson will be there to respond.  

His job is to oversee the SAR program for Arizona, which means being available 24/7, 365 days a year to assist in locating lost people or missing aircraft.  “My job is to provide service to the counties and to support them on their search and rescue mission. So if anyone gets lost, needs a rescue, a major incident occurs somewhere in the state, that SAR resources are called upon, I need to be available in case the counties need something above and beyond something they normally endure.”

Robinson started as a Deputy Sheriff and spent his career working in remote areas. He has been involved in SAR since 1992 in differing capacities and each of the approximately 600 missions he works every year is different.

“Search and rescue covers lost hikers, occasionally lost children, the elderly, missing aircraft,” Robinson said. “Most of it has to do with folks that are outdoors and get into some kind of predicament, while they are out hiking, camping, or fishing, or an airplane that goes off course.”

Robinson gets involved to assist with needed assets and incident management as well. He also oversees the fund that pays/reimburses the counties for their expenses that are incurred on SAR missions.

The missions take extensive agency support to be effective, from the Sheriff who is the responsible party for search and rescue in his or her county to the many federal and state partners, who support the county. Because  many agencies are involved in the technical and sometimes emotional process, relationships are critical to the missions running smoothly.

“Without relationships, search and rescue would not work. It is a trust-based process that is developed by having knowledge of the people involved and their capabilities when called upon to assist,” Robinson explained. “Without someone in the state position with knowledge and experience in the SAR field, I think the delicate relationship between the state and the counties would deteriorate.”

“Jesse eagerly helps all those in need with his vast knowledge and experience in SAR, and he is willing to answer his phone day or night to offer advice and resources on a mission,” said Deputy Christopher Pittmann, with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office SAR Unit. “Without the support of DEMA and Jesse Robinson, the sheriffs of Arizona would have an extremely difficult time bringing missions to a successful close."


A lot of time is spent on training to ensure responder safety— from the local teams training together to the coordinators statewide getting together and more. SAR coordinators go through search management training and are part of an association that meets quarterly. They develop standards for training new coordinators and volunteers and hold Basic Search and Rescue academies. Every two years there is a statewide SAR Conference in a remote location to practice and learn new skills.


The job of a SAR coordinator not only takes up a lot of time, it can be an emotionally draining job, but it is a job that Robinson is devoted to.


“The majority of the time we find what we are looking for, we don’t always find it the way we’d like to,” Robinson said with a pensive expression. “Unfortunately, SAR is a unique situation where we are always working behind the clock. The incident has already occurred before we get involved and we always have to try to make up the time lapse. Unfortunately people take our weather and environment for granted a lot of times. And we don’t find them in time. But any mission where we find our objective, I consider a successful mission. The ones that haunt me are the ones that we can’t find.”