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EHS juniors train intensely to be search-and-rescue volunteers

When most high school students think about the lost and found, misplaced hoodies and water bottles come to mind. 

But for Elizabeth High School juniors Ben Hicks and Mikinley Way, it means they can be called out of school at any time to don custom gear, jump into their specialized vehicle, and save the day like a superhero.

As part of the Arapahoe Rescue Patrol, they find people lost in the wilderness of Colorado. 

Ben Hicks and Mikinley Way stand in front of their Arapahoe Rescue Patrol truckThe volunteer search-and-rescue team has provided “free search, rescue and emergency services for the citizens of Colorado’s front range and throughout all of Colorado since 1957,” according to the patrol’s website

The patrol is technically under the jurisdiction of the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office but is 100% run by high-schoolers, of which there are currently about 40, Mikinley said. 

Teens become eligible to join once they are in high school. They attend rigorous training and work their way up through an established command hierarchy. 

On a snowy day earlier this spring, Mikinley and Ben made a recruiting presentation to EHS students, starting in the library and explaining what the team does. They led interested classmates outside to show them the specialized ARP pickup truck loaded with rescue gear.

Each new member receives more than 100 hours of initial training, including 24 hours of classroom time and two 48-hour, intensive search-and-rescue skill-building weekends in the wilderness. Basic 1 and Basic 2, as they’re known, present new patrol members with challenges they can rely upon when the situations are real. They start on a Friday evening and put in 18- to 20-hour days the subsequent Saturday and Sunday. 

“We're doing 15-plus miles on our feet – with packs – in a day,” Ben said. “This is where we get everybody up to speed.” Basic 2 builds upon Basic 1 and is later followed by another two-day wilderness-survival training. “That was THE best training of the year,” Mikinley said. For survival training, they have to be completely self-sufficient with only what is in their packs. 

Those packs are always ready to go. Ben and Mikinley keep them in their patrol truck at all times, “And they always have enough food, water and equipment to last 48 hours for you and a patient,” Ben said. “We do not pack anything different for survival (training). We can’t, for the value of the training, because we could be dropped on a search pattern, and we could be searching overnight.

“We could find a patient at 10 p.m., and it's going to take them two days to get to us to be able to carry them out. We need to be able to stay with that patient for two days with what we just carried in and be sufficient. So we train to that level.”

Ready for rescues

The patrol’s field-rescue specialties include rock climbing, high-angle technical rescue, vertical forest/low-angle evacuation, winter and alpine operations, avalanche rescue, wilderness life support, situation management, and assistance for local fire departments and law enforcement agencies. 

Mikinley Way and Ben Hicks break down rescue equipment to stow in their truckAmong the other kinds of training patrol members receive are: 

  • EMT-B level emergency care

  • wilderness survival

  • map and compass

  • technical rock rescue

  • radio communications

  • field evacuation

  • mass casualty training

  • evidence searching

  • winter operations

  • aircraft crash rescue

The patrol often partners with SARDOC (Search and Rescue Dogs of Colorado). Patrol members give SARDOC handlers extra guidance in the field. “We map for them. We keep them on trail, on track, keep everything going perfectly well for them all so they can focus on their dogs,” Mikinley said.

Training and ride-alongs regularly occur with the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s Office, Littleton Police and South Metro Fire and Rescue. “We get called out for lots of mutual aid work,” Mikinley said. They even train with helicopter crews for difficult-to-reach rescues high in the mountains.

Most years, the patrol will respond to between 50 and 70 rescue calls. Last year, that number was in the 30s, and so far this year there have been fewer calls “which is amazing because nobody's out getting hurt, getting lost,” Ben said.

“We train to prepare for the worst, but we expect the best,” Mikinley added. “When we go out there and we just train, we know that it's worth what we're doing because we find these people.”

“Alive,” Ben added.  

Knowing what Ben was referencing, Mikinley said, “Yeah, that was the coolest mission we've been on because we found our patient alive.”

Last year, an older woman from Rifle had been missing for four days. “We got called in as mutual aid, and Mikinley was on the find team,” Ben said.

After their long drive, Mikinley and two friends on the team found the woman rather quickly. “She was just sitting against a tree with no visible injuries,” Mikinley said. With Ben’s help, they carried the woman out. She was taken to a hospital and recovered well.

That kind of success is not unusual with the Arapahoe Rescue Patrol. In fact, it’s the expected outcome. 

High school students becoming professionals

When it started in the 1950s, the Arapahoe Rescue Patrol was the official search-and-rescue team for Arapahoe, Douglas and Elbert counties. DougCo has since left, but the patrol continues to provide crucial opportunities in places such as Elizabeth for students who want to pursue careers as first responders or in the medical field. 

Ben Hicks and Mikinley Way pack up their search and rescue truckBen said his family’s extensive experience in the outdoors, plus his interest in earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing made the rescue patrol a no-brainer. “It’s given me incredible direction for my career path,” he said. 

After a physically difficult first year, Mikinley emerged intent to go into the military and pursue a medical specialty. 

She said the enduring rationale, going all the way back to the patrol’s founding, is that when there’s an emergency, students can leave school much more easily and readily than most adults because the latter can’t just drop what they’re doing while working at their professional jobs.

With the proper permission from parents and school, the patrol can quickly field dozens of students when a similar call for adults might yield a maximum of five people. 

Adults serve on the board of directors and oversee training and operations, but the organization is mainly of and for highly responsible teenagers. Funding for the patrol comes from private donors.

Most students will earn 25-30 volunteer hours while in high school; rescue patrol members rack up more than 3,000.

“We have both been on for almost two years,” Ben said, “and we both already have over 1,000 hours.”

Patrol members must attend monthly meetings and field training, purchase basic equipment and uniforms, provide for transportation and food expenses for training activities and missions, and they must maintain good grades.

When Ben or Mikinley are paged, they have to leave immediately, regardless of what’s going on at school. That’s part of the agreement they make with school leaders and their parents, who must follow up with the school to verify the need for the sudden absence. 

“Every single thing we do, we make up so that we can go to school, be a full-time student,” Mikinley said, “but also be part-time rescuers who professionally save people's lives on the side.”

Ben agreed. “Everybody looks at us as kids. We’re ‘just a bunch of high schoolers,’ but we're not,” he said. “We are trained to the same level, if not better, and have the same experiences, if not more, as your professional, adult search-and-rescue teams. We, in our organization, hate the term ‘kids.’ If anybody ever calls us kids, it's insulting.”

Mikinley said their chief staff calls them young adults. “We do things that kids don’t see. You never know the status you’re going to find your patient in.”

While there are aspects of fun and amazement at what they get to do on patrol, she said there are hard parts too. “It's just the gory stuff that you're going to see that kind of messes with your head,” she said. “We train on that. We have resources available 24-7 in case anyone needs them, in case anyone is struggling. And if that ends up being the case and someone's having a really hard time with it, we're able to handle it. Our support system is just as great as our experience.

“All of us are here for each other,” she said. “And I would go as far to say that our team isn’t just a team, it’s a family.”

In fact, it’s a multi-generational family. Mikinley said their adult staff leaders did search and rescue when they were together in high school. “Those relationships don't go away,” she said as she gestured toward Ben. “This is probably the closest friend I'll have for the rest of my life.”

She said when their groups are out in the mountains for days at a time, they get to know each other like family members – and learn that their lives could literally depend on the people at their side.

Ben agreed. “The strongest relationships I have ever made are with these people.”

Mikinley Way explains to classmates what the Arapahoe Rescue Patrol does









Ben Hicks and Mikinley Way show classmates their rescue truck