Search and rescue: Money, time and training back lifesaving teams across Utah
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.
"That kind of a background is really fairly common, where you have people who have become moderately — or in some cases extremely — skilled in their sport and their outdoor recreation, and they decide they want to help others out," he said. "I'm volunteering that skill set to the community."
Sohl, a skilled climber, specializes in high-angle rescues and recoveries. Weber County responded to 31 incidents last year, and a few of calls each year require Sohl's specific expertise, like rope work, mountaineering, or rock and ice climbing.
He's quick to admit he's not great with a snowmobile.
"We're doing the sort of stuff in the backcountry that we like to do recreationally, and we're doing it to help somebody else out," Sohl said.
There are approximately 100 volunteers in Weber County, sheriff's Sgt. Brandon Toll said. Their expertise ranges from climbers like Sohl to divers, hikers, snowmobilers and more. One group unique to Weber County is a team of air boaters tasked with assisting duck hunters in marshy areas.
Volunteers can be reimbursed for fuel and damaged equipment but not their time, Toll said.
Sohl and his wife don't mind. They love the thrill, and they're willing to help.
"When (my wife and I) get a call out and there's somebody in a challenging situation, then for us that's just cool," Sohl said. "We're out the door together and we're talking about the whole thing, and we're laying out ideas of what we think it could be based on preliminary information, and what kind of gear do we need. We're planning the whole way there."
Search and rescue volunteers across the state must have first aid training to join, and continue participating in regular trainings and team meetings to stay on the roster. Buck Naegle, Iron County search and rescue commander and a manager at the Cedar City Wal-Mart, is always surprised at the assortment of people offering to help.
"It's a devoted team down here," Naegle said. "They're folks from all walks of life. I've got teachers, plumbers, electricians, truck drivers — I've got it all. They're a well-rounded team."
When search and rescue is called, crews might not show up right away.
"There is a misconception in the public that if something bad happens, that there is some kind of magic carpet ride that gets you out of a wilderness location," said Ray O'Neil, a Zion National Park employee. "The reality is there are many, many places in Zion National Park where you're going to spend the night no matter how seriously injured you are, and it's not going to be until the next day that you get out."
Zion National Park's search and rescue team is made up of park service employees such as O'Neil who volunteer for search duties in addition to their regular tasks.
Some tips for preventing accidents in the outdoors are very simple, like not jumping off things you shouldn't, O'Neil said. He also advises Utahns to be willing to change their plans if their day out isn't want they expected.
Injury and death can be avoided by turning around if a hike is too strenuous, avoiding treacherous areas when there are storms or extreme heat in the forecast, or packing adequate water and supplies for an unexpectedly long outing, O'Neil said.
Zion employee Craig Thexton calls search and rescue one of the most satisfying parts of his job, joking that he is accused of wanting people to get in trouble so he can go help them. In reality, he'd rather see them help themselves, Thexton said.
"We enjoy what we do. We take pride in what we do," he said. "But the bottom line is that we'd rather not do it. If we hear about folks who have an injury somewhere or are in some kind of trouble and they manage to self-rescue, that is more satisfying than anything else."
In the Salt Lake Valley, groups out for a hike often don't realize they can get in trouble so close to home, Skinner said. His advice to hikers out on Mount Olympus is to keep an eye on the trail behind them as they go so they know what to expect on the way back.
"They can see they valley the entire time that you're hiking, but just because you can see the valley doesn't mean you can find a safe route down if you get off the trail," Skinner said.
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