Search & Rescue

A KUED original production, Search & Rescue offers a behind-the-scenes look at Utah’s first-responder Search and Rescue volunteers. See how life and death experiences have shaped the lives of these brave men and women.

When Brenda Beene was 15, she and two cousins decided to hike up a waterfall to watch the sunset. While scaling the slippery precipice, one of her cousins lost his footing, and fell off the rock face. “The fear was indescribable,” says Beene. “It was paralyzing. I sat there, next to his lifeless body, for what seemed like forever. The sun started to go down, and then I saw two faces come up over the ledge. It was Search and Rescue. I was so grateful.”

Search & Rescue follows search and rescue volunteers who confront life and death experiences that have shaped their lives.

That feeling that you get when you help that person, when you bring a person down off a mountain and the family is standing there, waiting. You feel like you made a difference today.
Toby Norton, Utah County Search and Rescue

Becoming a SAR member is a rigorous process. After being selected from a pool of applicants, interviewees must provide their own gear, means of travel, and take a yearlong course to learn the skills required to be a part of the team, followed by a strenuous final test.

Thank you

Funding for Search & Rescue was provided by Pacific Mountain Network (PMN).

SAR Volunteers

How Search & Rescue Works

Search and Rescue, or SAR, is called when someone needs assistance in a remote area, or in an environment that requires specialized equipment.  Typically, rescues take place in the backcountry whether it be mountains, lakes, deserts, or caves.  But SAR teams also assist in urban areas during natural disasters or lost person searches.

In Utah, SAR is organized by county.  Each county sheriff’s office is charged with all Search and Rescue operations.  County resources and team size vary from 6-60 members.

Volunteers

If you are lost or hurt in the wilderness, odds are the person coming to help you is a volunteer. Search and Rescue volunteers work “on their own time and their own dime” in risky environments to get others to safety.  They come from all walks of life--doctors, teachers, mechanics, entrepreneurs. They are men and women of varying ages and backgrounds. Together they are a pool of expertise, a group of problem solvers, a set of boots on the ground that a county sheriff can draw on to solve a particularly unique or difficult situation.

Most Rescues by County

2015

  1. Grand 125
  2. Utah 111
  3. Washington 69
  4. Cache 47
  5. Wasatch 46
  6. Salt Lake 43
  7. Sanpete / Sevier / Summit 22
  8. San Juan 17

1998 to 2015

  1. Grand 1557
  2. Utah 1465
  3. Salt Lake 1062
  4. Cache 648
  5. Washington 631
  6. Wasatch 619
  7. Summit 592
  8. Weber 452
  9. Sanpete 366
  10. Sevier 359

SAR Funding

SAR isn’t cheap. To help defray local costs, the state has a SAR reimbursement fund. Money from Division of Wildlife Resources licenses and off-road vehicle registration supports the fund. So, every time someone buys a fishing or hunting license, or registers an ATV, snowmobile, or jet boat, about 50 cents from that purchase goes to support SAR. Teams can apply for reimbursement costs to cover expenses. Because of that, most counties don’t charge for rescues. However, Grand and Wayne Counties do charge.  Grand County has the highest number of rescues in the state, a figure that is extremely high relative to the local tax base.  The bottom line is that people love to explore Grand County’s many National Parks and Monuments, and a few hundred of them get hurt every year.

One thing to note, Search & Rescue might be free, but If a patient is transported to a hospital by air or ground ambulance, then they will be charged just as they would for an urban medical call.

Which counties spent the most?
  1. Cache - $41,704
  2. Utah - $37,509
  3. Salt Lake - $26,686
  4. Washington – $23,386
  5. Grand - $20,268

In 2015 Utah State paid out a total of $272,054.  Of the three areas where the money is spent, Search, Training, and Equipment, the smallest was in actual Search efforts (23%). This is a direct result of SAR volunteers. Training came in second at 38% and Equipment at 39%.

Ride along with Search & Rescue

A search and rescue team risk their own lives to retrieve the body of a victim after a 600 foot fall.

"They had lots of water, extra clothing, and they got a 6:30 a.m. start.  But the Lone Peak Wilderness area can be difficult to navigate."

"Holidays are popular times for accidents and emergencies..."

How to become a volunteer

Being the biggest, toughest, fastest person up the mountain doesn’t necessarily prepare you to be a SAR volunteer.  Being able to communicate well and get along with others is critical.  Specialized skills in mountaineering, dog training, scuba diving, etc. help. The biggest challenge is the commitment it takes -- financially, emotionally, and in the sheer numbers of hours you need to be available.

In addition to owning the right gear and being available, volunteers are required to pass a basic fitness and skills test.  New members usually go through a year of training before they officially join the team.  Technical proficiency, understanding terrain, navigational and tracking skills, mountain high angle rigging skills, and medical training all come into play.  Most teams require extensive monthly training along with team meetings.

Gear List

Gear is critical, and having the right gear can be an investment.  Here’s a sample list that new Utah County volunteers are given:

  • Crampons
  • Snow Shoes
  • Back Packs
  • Boots
  • Outer Wear: (layers: inner, middle outer shell, Beanies, hats, gloves for all Utah seasons)
  • Survival kit for car (Food, water, heat source)
  • Avalanche Beacon
  • Radio Check Pack (Coaxsher (2 radios most likely)
  • Climbing Harness
  • Compass
  • Head lamp
  • Personal Bivouac
  • Handheld Radio
  • GPS
  • Avalanche Probe
  • Mountaineering Ice Axe
  • Sleeping Bag
  • Personal First aid kit
  • Fire starter stuff
  • Wet Suit
  • Dry Suit
  • DOT/SNELL Helmet
  • PFD
  • Mobile Radio (for vehicle)
  • Climbing Helmet
  • Assorted Climbing Gear (6 locking carabineers. Must be 27+ Kn (do $ not have to be NFPA rated) Rescue belay device Conterra Scarab, Leather or synthetic belay gloves, Personal anchor gear, rappel rings, personal locking 'biners, pully, pitons and hammer, slings)

Preparing for the outdoors

Photo by Francisco Kjolseth

Before I began hanging out with SAR teams, I never gave much thought about packing extra for a day hike. Now that I’ve seen that accidents can happen I always pack "The Ten Essentials."

Several storms are rolling in for the holiday season, which means lots of fresh powder in the mountains.  But, it also means high to extreme avalanche danger.

I’m one thousand feet off the desert canyon floor, hanging by a rope. I’m a long way out of my comfort zone. Normally I would be terrified, but I know I’m in good hands.

Search and Rescue is called out on a rescue mission and find a situation that takes them by surprise.

SAR Helicopters

Helicopters are a vital asset for many Search and Rescue missions throughout Utah. In a state popular for its wide array of varied terrain, Helicopters can be crucial in assisting people stuck in locations that would prove otherwise inaccessible to other rescue methods. According to the Utah Department of Public Safety, an estimated 10-15 people per year are saved from otherwise lethal situations thanks to their helicopters. In 2012, the Salt Lake Tribune reported that the Utah Highway Patrol Helicopter assists in approximately 10% of the Search and Rescue missions across the state. The annual rescue numbers only increase when including the private Helicopter programs throughout Utah. Intermountain Health Care’s Lifeflight and the University of Utah’s AirMed helicopters are two of the most common private Helicopter providers, although many other private emergency helicopters can be seen in the state. Since 1978, Life Flight has transported more than 65,000 patients, logging over 10 million miles. In 2012, it was estimated that about 10 to 15 patients were transported on average each day.

For those being rescued, the difference between the public and private helicopters are largely a matter of cost. Private companies will charge patients to be flown to hospitals, but will not charge patients who are flown to a nearby ambulance. On the other hand, State-run helicopters are free for those in need. Although helicopters are expensive endeavors for the Utah Highway Patrol, their heavy use and immense benefits far outweigh their costs. As both public and private Helicopter programs continue to develop and improve their Helicopter fleets, the capabilities of Search and Rescue teams continue to improve each year.

Rescue Dogs

"Everyday has been an opportunity to train, learn, and grow together."

Marguerite Van Komen will spend 10 years training Frankie to become a certified avalanche dog. 

Sophie, the rescue dog, trains to find human remains in preparation for emergency search and recovery missions.

Puppies Running
Prepay for your rescue!

Purchasing a Utah Search and Rescue Assistance (USARA) card provides you and your family peace of mind and helps to support the vital Search and Rescue services we depend on in the backcountry. Think of the USARA card as another piece of “safety equipment” the prudent person takes into the wilds.

When people head into the back-country, they don't plan on having an accident, getting lost, or suffering from temperature extremes. But when "nature happens," calls for help go out to county search and rescue crews.

In most cases, rescues are relatively straightforward affairs, but some incidents quickly become complicated and technically challenging, entailing expensive ground and air searches or helicopter evacuations. In Grand County, for example, the average cost of a rescue is about $2,000, but the most expensive rescue missions can exceed tens of thousands of dollars. High-cost rescues can severely strain the small tax bases of Utah’s gateway communities, some of which may see an average of 100 rescues a year.

The lack of funding to pay for search and rescue has unfortunately forced some hard-hit counties to back-bill and charge rescue victims for the costs of their rescue. To the victim, these back-bill charges can be a nasty surprise after the trauma and anxiety of a backcountry incident.

The Utah Search and Rescue Assistance (USARA) card allows backcountry recreationists to contribute to search and rescue efforts while eliminating the liability to repay associated costs. The program has been priced for value with a one-year individual subscription at $25 and just $35 for a family of up to six members. A five-year subscription gives the purchaser a 20 percent discount.