Tiffany Nelms is making history, but says it’s really not that big of a deal.
At the beginning of the year, the Tooele woman became the first female commander of Tooele County Search and Rescue, and at 30, she is one of the youngest commanders ever. When she talks about the distinction, though, she shrugs.
“I don’t really think about it,” she said. “I was raised on search and rescue. I’ve just always been around it.”
Nelms grew up around the training and missions through her father, Fred Dennison — who now serves as her vice commander — and grandfather, Joe Mehlbauer, both heavily involved in the organization. The attitude of lending a helping hand in dire situations was infectious, and Nelms became an EMT. Seven years ago, she decided to join search and rescue as an official member.
“I wanted to help,” she said, “I wanted to do the training.”
The transition from the outside looking in, to being part of the club, was an easy one, she said. Through her father and grandfather, she was well aware of, and prepared for, the ups and downs the volunteer job brings.
The challenge of training, the rush of going on a mission — and the emotional burden if a mission ends badly — were both as thrilling and tough to deal with as foretold, she said.
“It’s never dull,” said Nelms. “There are never any two calls that are the same.”
In the last seven years, Nelms has served in several leadership positions, including vice commander. During one Ride for Life, which Tooele County Search and Rescue participates in to benefit the Make-A-Wish foundation, Nelms met her now-fiancé, Rusty Hoffman, who has now joined the group, too. Nelms’ brother, Joe Dennison, is also a member.
However, since Nelms’ childhood some things have changed. Cell phones and GPS mean fewer people need rescuing after taking a leisurely drive through the desert and becoming stranded from mechanical errors, poor preparation, or simply taking too many wrong turns.
While members of search and rescue still navigate by maps and compasses, technology makes it easier to make sure they’ve covered an area thoroughly — GPS bullet points on a digital map track where searchers have been and where every track was found and tagged.
The training requirements have also changed, Nelms said, and continue to evolve. Current state standards demand that every member achieve at least a level three of training, on a scale of three to one, with three being the lowest. She added most of the Tooele County members have achieved at least a level two. The standard also means somewhat different requirements for specialty training, such as ropes teams and scuba diving teams.
Nelms said the purpose of standards is to help make sure that different groups from around the state are all on the same page if they have to combine efforts, whether it be for a search across a county line, or a statewide catastrophe, such as an earthquake. There are also different requirements for the United States Search and Rescue, which Tooele County’s group recently joined, she said.
Going above and beyond the requirements, as well as getting specialized training in various areas, is important for the local team, said Nelms, not only to help keep rescuers and rescuees as safe as possible, but because of the diverse makeup of the county.
“We’re the second largest county,” she said. “We’ve got a bowl up there — we could have an avalanche — and we’ve got tons of mines, all that desert and the mountains.”
Nelms said so far in her one-year tenure as commander, she hasn’t done much besides training, including an exercise with members of the Tooele City Fire Department last weekend on winter water rescues.
Tooele County Sheriff Frank Park said no matter what the year brings, search and rescue is in capable hands.
“She definitely has the respect of the membership, and it definitely showed in the voting [for commander],” said Park. “She didn’t just come out of the crowd — she’s held a number of leadership positions before and she’s done a great job. I have no doubt she’ll do an outstanding job as commander.”
He added, “She grew up being part of it and it’s been neat to see her progression. We’re in good hands. I’m not worried a bit.”