Classic Lifeguard Helicopter, a Wood Cross-based company, assists Grand County Search and Rescue with back-country emergencies. GCSAR averages about 100 call-outs per year for assistance in emergency situations or cases of lost individuals. Last year, GCSAR responded to 93 call-outs. [Photo by Lindsey Bartosh / Moab Sun News]

Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) volunteer team members responded to three call-outs in a two-hour time period on Monday, June 23. The GCSAR team has responded to 58 call-outs to date for the year, and 2014 is looking to be a busy season for the volunteers.

GCSAR rescuers are called out when the dispatch receives a request for back-country assistance or emergencies, or if an emergency has occurred in an area the Grand County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) can not reach with the ambulance. GCSAR also responds to missing persons reports.

On average, the GCSAR responds to 100 call per year. GCSAR commander Jim Webster said the team is the busiest search and rescue department in Utah. Some years, Utah County responds to more calls, but Webster said its population is much larger than Grand County, so even then the GCSAR per-capita response is still much higher.

The busiest times for call-outs are the spring months of April and March and the fall months of September and October. The team deals mostly with mountain bike and all-terrain vehicle accidents, as well as a lot of heat-related incidents with hikers and bikers.

“We have a lot of accidents on the Slickrock Trail and Hell’s Revenge,” Webster said. “We have a lot of mountain bike injuries or dehydration calls to Porcupine Rim.”

Grand County EMS responded to 960 calls in 2013, also making it one of the busiest per-capita EMS agencies in Utah.

EMS director Andy Smith said while the majority of EMS calls are for in-town medical emergencies, the weather and tourist season affect the number of calls made to dispatch.

“Basically, March to October our monthly call average jumps;  however, in the last few years even the off months, November, December, January, February, are getting busy,” he said. “The obvious reason is the tourist season and the weather.”

So far this year, GCSAR has dealt with four fatalities. Webster said it usually sees between one and three fatalities in a year. Last year, it dealt with nine fatal incidences.

Vice-commander Bego Gerhart said having a year with a large number of fatalities, such as last year, is a random occurrence that can not really be linked any particular reason.

“I don’t think you can attribute it to anything else but random occurrence,” he said.

“A lot of risk-takers come to this town to participate in activities,” Webster said. “But a lot of the fatalities we deal with are just accidents. Of the four fatalities this year, two were risk-takers, but people do those activities all the time safely. Some years are just harder than others.”

Webster said GCSAR has not seen an increase in the average number of yearly call-outs with the increasing popularity of extreme sports, such as BASE jumping and the arch swings, in Grand County last few years.

“We do respond to those sorts of things more often than we used to because those sorts of things weren’t happening 10 year ago to the degree they do now,” he said. “It’s just an evolution. When you look at what was happening 20 years ago, we had a lot of calls for lost people. We don’t get that much anymore because today a person has a cell phone.”

Webster said calls to 911 from cell phones can provide dispatch with GPS locations, making locating a lost individual much easier for GCSAR response teams. Gerhart also said the increase in guide books, maps, and signs for Moab’s surrounding area has also decreased the number of lost-person reports.

“In the ’90s, there were no guidebooks, no maps, no signs,” he said. “You would drop someone off at a trailhead and after dark that person’s not back. We would go out and sometimes not even know where we were because the collective knowledge hadn’t really happened yet. Then guidebooks came and there is a lot of collective knowledge out there now.”

EMS also responds to accidents from activities, such as BASE jumping and the arch swings, but Smith said he does not think it is an abnormal amount of calls.

“…As the popularity has increased we respond to more calls,” he said. “I think this correlates with any activity – hiking, mountain biking, 4-wheeling – when more people participate it is more likely that someone will be injured,” he said. “I don’t feel that we respond to abnormal amount of calls to arch swinging or BASE jumping.”

Jen Sadoff, Moab Regional Hospital (MRH) community relations director, said the hospital emergency room sees a higher than national average number of trauma accidents.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in trauma related accidents, like BASE jumping, ATV, and motorcycles. Forty percent of our visits are trauma related, which is significantly higher than the national average,” she said.

Sadoff said that MRH is down in the percentage of patients they are referring to outside area hospitals.

“The number of patients needing to ship out is down about 12 percent, which is partially because we have really expanded the overall ability of the hospital, with an orthopaedic surgeon and general surgeon, and can help in-house instead of shipping,” she said.

Both the GCSAR and EMS charge for the response services.  GCSAR does not charge if the call involves a Grand County resident or if the individual is deceased.  Smith said responding to call-outs for incidents from activities such as BASE jumping or the arch swinging does not have an effect directly on its budget, but it has required more training for rescuers.

“Grand County EMS operates on revenues received for treating and transporting patients, not on taxes,” he said. “So, responding to these incidents does not create a negative effect on our budget, because we bill for the service. These types of calls do, however, require a higher degree of back-country proficiency and technical rope rescue skills, to adequately respond and treat any injured parties who might be in a precarious location. This has required, in order for our EMTs and Paramedics to be safe, a lot of additional training.”

GCSAR volunteers also participate in training and have volunteers specialized in certain areas, such as rock climbing, snow-mobile operating, or swimming, to help deal with the vast differing terrain found around Moab.

“We meet twice a month in training sessions, and we train and debrief at the sessions,” Webster said.

Trainings include both classroom work and field work in areas like Arches National Park, the Colorado River, and the La Sal Mountains.  

The GCSAR volunteer team has a carrying capacity of 32 members. This year, the team is running with 30 members. Any individuals interested in becoming a volunteer with the GCSAR can contact Jim Webster or the Grand County Sheriff’s Office at 435-259-8115. Trainees sign up as county volunteers and complete a year to a year and a half of volunteer training. Trainees attend the twice-monthly trainings and start assisting with call-outs during the training year before becoming an official member of the GCSAR team.

“A lot of risk-takers come to this town to participate in activities, but a lot of the fatalities we deal with are just accidents. Of the four fatalities this year, two were risk-takers, but people do those activities all the time safely. Some years are just harder than others.”

Search and Rescue:

People interested in becoming Grand County Search and Rescue volunteers may contact the Grand County Sheriff’s Office at 435-259-8115.

Volunteers dispatched 58 times already in 2014