YUMA Border Patrol agent David Zahn's experience shows as he winds his dirt bike around orange cones on a rocky training course. Two colleagues have a steeper learning curve, one of them stalling repeatedly and the other finding his groove after riding tentatively at first.
Zahn's edge comes from experience; he rides dirt bikes for fun. Yet he said he has a lot to learn to use the vehicle to do his job, which has him rescuing people in the rugged terrain along the Arizona-Mexico border.
Those lessons include using hand signals to communicate with fellow riders and how to ride safely wearing the bulky backpack he carries as a member of BORSTAR, the Border Patrol's search, trauma and rescue operation.
Zahn usually travels in a truck or SUV and uses a four-wheel all-terrain vehicle in more rugged areas. But those don't have the agility of a dirt bike when it comes to traversing the narrow arroyos and mountainsides where he patrols, making driving to some rescues nearly impossible.
"We use this type of vehicle because we can help those in distress faster, before they might die," Zahn said.
After hearing about the use of dirt bikes in other sectors, the Border Patrol's Yuma Sector requested its first dirt bike in 2005. It now has six bikes and conducts regular training for its search-and-rescue agents, said Boone Smith, BORSTAR commander for the sector.
"It allows us to access patients or people in need of help in a quick and safe manner," Smith said. "If we respond and we have a vehicle breakdown or a truck gets stuck, we compound the problem rather than offer a solution to it."
The bikes work well on rocky desert terrain, but they aren't used in the dunes just west of Yuma because they don't perform well in sand, Smith said.
Shawn Colsch, a BORSTAR supervisor who is certified as an instructor by the Motorcycle Safety Foundation, provided training to Zahn and his colleagues on a recent afternoon.
"These guys are going to be weighted down with heavy equipment, probably riding for an entire shift," Colsch said. "Eight, 10, 12 hours on a motorcycle looking for aliens, looking for people in distress, so we're trying to teach them the most safe way to ride so they can ride that long duration without getting hurt."
Colsch pulls out his notebook and goes over a list of hand signals that will allow the agents to communicate with each other over the noise of dirt bike engines and with helmets covering their faces. Then he sends them onto the course.
"It's a fairly new tool for us; it takes time to get us all trained," Colsch said.