During a recent training, a crew of Grand County Search and Rescue team members practiced transporting “patients” in a one-wheeled litter.
Jake Blackwelder is the Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) training officer and he facilitated the transport. A volunteer lay down and was strapped into the litter, and one trainee acted as the ‘driver’ steering the litter from the head, while five to seven other trainees helped stabilize and push the litter. Everyone except the patient and the driver wore blindfolds.
“The point of this is to be able to feel what it’s like to move with the litter, so use senses other than sight,” explained Blackwelder.
The team pushed the patient around the gravel lot behind the Operations Center for several minutes with Blackwelder offering advice.
Grand County Search and Rescue continues to be one of the busiest search and rescue teams in the state of Utah. In 2019, there have been 112 calls, an increase from the previous year. Moab’s status as an adventure mecca for a wide variety of outdoor sports translates to a wide variety of rescue scenarios.
“Every call is a little bit different,” said Jim Webster, the commander of the team. “They’re all unique—they’re not ‘routine’ calls.”
The blindfolded team advanced to the more rocky and uneven terrain of the dirt road parallel to the highway in front of the Emergency Operations Center.
“We do this dozens and dozens of times a year,” said Webster of the litter carry-outs. “If you’re on a rescue like that, there’s communications the whole way. When you’re doing this and you’re in the back, you can’t see your feet.”
Currently, GCSAR has thirty-one active members. Those in their first year are considered in-training and are volunteers. The other members are county employees and paid a wage for responding to SAR calls.
“It’s kind of unusual—most SAR teams are strictly volunteers, with a few people that are paid,” said Webster. “But we go out so often, and we’re working with EMTs that are getting paid.”
Webster said it isn’t the money that gets people interested and involved in SAR. They want to be a part of a team, hone their skills, and give back to the community. The program doesn’t have an official recruitment strategy.
“It’s pretty much word of mouth—people think they want to do it, so they’ll start coming to meetings,” Webster said. “And if they really like what they see by coming to a few meetings, then we talk to them a little bit more and then we’ll get them to sign up as a volunteer.”
SAR members must go through a background check and a drug test, and attend meetings and respond to calls for a year on a volunteer basis.
Grady Anderson is a Moab local and attended this most recent meeting as his first training.
“It seems like this is very community-oriented and a thing that everyone can be involved with,” said Anderson.
Anderson is an outdoor enthusiast and has served on SAR teams as a former employee of the National Park Service in other locations, including Rocky Mountain National Park.
“Being able to improve my technical rescue experience is very appealing. There’s more to be learned from it every time I go. Just looking at their training calendar and looking at the skills everyone has, it seems like a highly-skilled group of people in so many different orientations in the rescue field.”
Funding and Partnerships
To be prepared for any type of mission, the team has an array of rescue equipment and vehicles stored at their Emergency Operations Center. That includes ropes and hardware for high angle rescues, rafts for river calls and agile off-road vehicles to access rugged trails and remote areas. There is also a helicopter onsite, owned and operated by a private company called Classic Air Medical. The company flies rescue missions for the Sheriff’s Department in exchange for housing their helicopter at the county’s Operations Center.
GCSAR also has agreements to give and receive help to and from other agencies, such as the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management, as needed.
GCSAR is under the Grand County Sheriff’s Office and receives some of its funding through the county. They are also reimbursed for some expenses through the Utah State Search and Rescue Financial Assistance program, which is funded in part by small surcharges on recreational vehicle permits and hunting and fishing licenses. The fund also receives money from the sale of Utah Search and Rescue Assistance (USARA) cards, which recreators can purchase on an annual basis and which assure the holder that they will not be charged for SAR services should they find themselves in need of help.
That fund has helped alleviate the need for SAR programs to bill patients.
Webster said GCSAR has not been in the practice of billing patients for several years, though the USARA card agreement does contain a clause stating that a recipient of SAR services may be billed if they needed help as a result of their own intentional or reckless actions.
“A person acts recklessly when he or she engages in highly unreasonable conduct, involving an extreme departure from ordinary care, in a situation where a high degree of danger is apparent,” says the USARA website.
This definition has not automatically applied to BASE jumping, rock climbing, rafting white water, or driving motor vehicles up advanced obstacles in remote areas.
The Utah Search and Rescue Advisory Board publishes an annual report on rescues and reimbursements by county. The latest available report provides numbers from 2017. According to that document, GCSAR was reimbursed $6,155 for search operations, $4,159 for training, and $7,703 for equipment—a total of $18,017. The program’s total budget for this year is $184,000.
Skills and Technology
Team members stay sharp by attending regular, twice a month training meetings as well as occasional field trainings on weekends. The department maintains a set of written standards detailing skills and knowledge a SAR member should strive to have.
The expansive list includes fundamental skills like personal readiness, understanding incident management structure and proper communications.
A more specialized list of skills is also included. That list includes boat operations and swiftwater rescue, winter operations, air operations and technical rescue. Also on the list are even more varied categories, like crime scene operations, hazardous materials and urban search and rescue.
At the most recent meeting, attendees learned about a communication device, made by Garmin, called “inReach.” The devices allow the user to send unique or pre-set text messages from remote areas using satellites. It’s an upgrade from similar but older, less reliable, less versatile devices.
Technology improvements like this can help SAR operations run more smoothly. For example, up until this year, some SAR members, due to their location, weren’t able to receive the radio tones signaling a SAR call. As of this year, an app called ‘eDispatch’ transcribes the radio message and sends it to SAR members as a text and an email, which reaches members more reliably.
Smartphones facilitate SAR operations in other ways as well.
“I’d love for everybody to know that if you call 911 with a smartphone, you are essentially telling a dispatcher where you are,” said Webster.
A 911 call will automatically track and log the GPS position of the caller, and that information can help SAR locate their patient. Sometimes the situation can even be resolved over the phone.
“There have been times where we are able to talk the person out of where they are—if there’s not an injury, and the weather’s not bad, and they’re up to it, if there’s enough light left—we have done that,” Webster said.
The commitment to aiding the outdoor community with skill and support is what’s driven Anderson, the new recruit, to become more involved.
“You know in the back of your mind that SAR is always there to support you,” Anderson said, “but to be a part of it is a cool opportunity.”