Grand County Search and Rescue was busy last year.
Between Jan. 1 and Dec. 31 2012, they went out on 108 missions. That’s a new record for the group that has been averaging at about 98 missions for the last eight years.
Grand County also set the record number of search and rescues in the state. Utah County came in second with 98.
“Grand County is either the busiest, or right behind Utah County,” Webster said.
Grand County’s population was 9,325 in the 2010 Census. Utah County’s was 530,499.
The difference is that Grand County is a tourist destination.
“We’re having more visitors come to Moab all the time,” Webster said. “When you have a million people coming through, somebody is going to trip and fall and break their leg and they will need help getting out. And now we’ve become more of a destination for BASE jumping, an ATV Mecca and a place for single track mountain biking.”
Grand County is one of the few counties to charge for search and rescue services.
“It is an expensive proposition to be rescued. It is unusual for people to be charged in the US for rescued in the backcountry,” Webster said.
Grand County Search and Rescue advises the clerk’s office of how much the mission should be reimbursed, but search and rescue doesn’t receive feedback of what has been paid.
“Any money paid goes into the (county’s) general fund,” Webster said.
Grand County Search and Rescue receives a $200,000 budget as a department within the Grand County Sheriff’s Office. This year Search and Rescue will receive 6.9 percent of the new revenue coming from the Transient Room Tax 1.25 percent increase. However, this money will replace dollars that used to come from the county’s general fund, leaving search and rescues budget the same this year as it was last.
In the last year, Grand County has seen a “spate of BASE jumping accidents,” Webster said.
There were six BASE jump rescues in 2012 alone.
“Moab is known as an advanced BASE jumping town. If people want to get on the map, if they want to jump difficult terrain, they may want to come here,” Webster said. “This is the place that is known in the BASE jumping community to have a lot of challenges.”
The first rescue of 2012 was a BASE jumping accident at Fisher Towers in February that Webster described as a “doozy”. It required a technical rock rescue and a helicopter evacuation. Nine Search and Rescue team members were on site; rock climbers in the area assisted.
Search and Rescue officer Bego Gerhart said that most BASE jumping crashes happen when the parachute opens “off heading”.
“A chute that opens correctly means the jumper is facing straight away from the cliff when he or she gains full steering control. Off-heading means the chute opens so the jumper will be turning one way or the other and probably comes around and hits the wall before gaining full steering control,” Gerhart said. “The jumper then skitters down the wall, the chute partially open but no control, crashing into the hillside. This almost always breaks ankles and legs, and it can be worse.”
The second mission of the year was a body recovery.
Garret Carothers, 18, of Colorado was snowmobiling in Beaver Basin on the La Sal Mountains on March 3 when he was caught in an avalanche.
Grand County had 14 team members on site, plus help from Search and Rescue teams from Carbon County, San Juan County and Mesa County, Colo.
Most incidents are not as dramatic.
Many are mountain bikers who aren’t prepared.
“They’re uninjured, but looking at spending the night and they only have t-shirts and biking shirts on,” Webster said. “Some are lost and can't find their way back. They call 911 and are a long ways from trailhead. They’re not prepared. They have no light, no fire, little or no water, no food. They’re not able to navigate themselves. They’re not wanting to spend the night out there and it’s getting cold.”
The most common calls are to retrieve mountain bikers on Porcupine or Slickrock trails, or swimmers at Left Hand in Mill Creek who jumped off the rocks into the water and broke a leg.
Of the 108 missions in 2012, only five involved local residents.
"Our locals are less likely to need our help because they know where they are, or call friends, or have more inherent resources - being outdoorsy people, or know how to get out of a jam," said Jim Webster, Grand County Search and Rescue commander.
There is far less searching in search and rescue now.
With the increased use of cell phones and well-marked Bureau of Land Management trails, rescuers generally know where they need to go.
“The work the BLM has done has been helpful for both visitors and rescuers,” said Search and Rescue officer Frank Mendonca. “We can usually ask what was the last sign they saw, and one of know where it is.”
Mendonca joked that one of the benefits of working with search and rescue is that one “gets to see all of Grand County in the dark.”
“Today we often have information about where they are, or close to where they are with a 911 phone call that will give coordinates,” Webster said. “We have people in our operation that know most trails in the county, people who have familiarity of the trails.”
Search and Rescue has worked closely with Trail Mix to intimately learn about the new trails and where the vehicle access points would be because many of the new trails are singletrack.
Gerhart and Mendonca went over maps to prepare for upcoming staff training.
“There’s always training,” Webster said.
There were 34 staff training sessions in 2012. There are two meetings a month, plus field training that might take between two to eight hours, such as the eight-hour rock climbing rescue class they had recently.
Grand County Search and Rescue now has 22 active members, four trainees and one volunteer. All active members are considered part-time employees. In order to be considered an active member, one must go to 50 percent of all the trainings, go out on 20 percent of the paged call-outs and participate in 33 percent of the community service projects, such as assisting with parades or the rodeo.
There is little monetary reward for a large time commitment.
As part-time employees, they are paid “$10 per training and a little bit for responding on a call,” Webster said.
Some of the desire is to work is out of a sense of karma.
“I go out and do things myself and if I needed help I would want somebody to come out and get me," said Melissa Nerone, who has been working with Grand County Search and Rescue for the last six years.
Gerhart said that he’s been involved in doing rescues since he was “eight years old and got a cat out of a tree.”
“It fulfills my community merit badge: Do a good turn daily,” he said. “And it’s fun.”
If someone is interested in working with Search and Rescue, the individual is encouraged to come to a few meetings to learn more. After attending three meetings, the commander and a few more experienced search and rescue team members will visit with them about the demands, and may invite them to be a trainee. The training program takes a full year.
“No matter what experience they may have, there is still a year of training,” Webster said.
Grand County Search and Rescue is now working on setting training standards that are specific to Grand County.
“Utah’s Sheriff’s Association is looking at what we’re doing,” Webster said. “The way we’re putting it together may set the standard for Utah.”