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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.