Search and rescue: Money, time and training back lifesaving teams across Utah

Published: Sunday, July 6 2014 3:20 p.m. MDT

A male hiker fell 40 to 50 feet while hiking Donut Falls in Big Cottonwood Canyon. Search and rescue crews help the hiker, Saturday, June 14, 2014.

Stuart Johnson, Stuart Johnson/KSL Chopper 5

SALT LAKE CITY — For dozens of search and rescue teams across Utah, it's not a question of if, but when, they will be needed.

In Duchesne County, rescuers and a medical helicopter were called in last week when a hiker suffering from dangerous altitude sickness became trapped on the Highline Trail in the Uinta Mountains.

In Salt Lake County, a search team scoured the mountainside near Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort last week to retrieve the body of an Illinois man who had fallen to his death.

And in Cache County, crews worked through the night to rescue two injured men who lost control sledding and slid off a 15-foot drop at the bottom of a 1,000-foot ravine near Logan Peak last month.

These examples from a handful of recent search and rescue operations demonstrate there's no off-season for the mostly volunteer teams across the state, but warmer temperatures, school vacations and holiday excursions can keep them hopping from one expensive rescue to the next.

The cost of helping

Each year, Grand County leads the state in the number — and cost — of search and rescue operations. With breathtaking red rock and easy access to state parks, national parks and the Colorado River within easy reach, Grand County averages about 99 search and rescue missions each year, according to an annual report by the Utah Department of Public Safety.

Last year, the 30-person team manned 97 of the 535 missions reported to DPS. With 58 operations already completed this year, Grand County is on track to exceed its annual average, search and rescue commander Jim Webster said. The county has reported 1,333 operations since 1998.

"There aren't trends. They are just things that happened," said Webster, who has answered calls ranging from heat exhaustion and wandering hikers to rock-climbing accidents and major crashes. "It's just the luck of the draw, really."

Utah County has the second-highest history of search and rescues, with 1,258 searches reported over 15 years, while Salt Lake County has completed 973.

Each operation comes with a cost.

"The cost, averaged out, would be around $4,000 and $6,000 for each rescue," said Unified Police Sgt. Travis Skinner, who oversees Salt Lake County's all-volunteer search and rescue team.

Counties across the state foot the bill for search and rescue efforts, though Grand and Wayne counties charge for rescues.

In 2013, DPS reimbursed 23 counties across the state for $270,592 spent on search and rescue operations, training and equipment. The money comes from the state's Search and Rescue Financial Assistance Program, which is funded by surcharges on several state services.

The fund gets 25 cents from each fishing, hunting or combination license; 50 cents from each off-highway vehicle registration or renewal; and 50 cents from motorboat or sailboat registrations or renewals.

Forty-one percent, or $110,317, went toward equipment, while 31 percent of reimbursements went to training. The fund paid $75,070 toward search operations.

Volunteering to help

John Sohl has been a volunteer with Weber County search and rescue for 24 years, along with his wife. His "real job," as he explains it, is teaching physics at Weber State University.

As a longtime outdoors enthusiast, friends began to rely on Sohl as their guide on trips, which prompted him to take a first aid course when he was 18 years old.

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