Washington County Search and Rescue: Who are they? Who pays?

Members of WCSAR, Life Flight and the Washington County Sheriff's Department assist a hiker with medical issues, St. George, Utah, Feb. 25, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue

WASHINGTON COUNTY – For the members of the all-volunteer Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue, the payoff of a successful rescue – bringing the missing or injured home safely to their loved ones – far outweighs the cost.

Members of WCSAR participate in high angle rescue training, Ivins, Utah, Feb. 25, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue

Functions of WCSAR

WCSAR is an extension of the Washington County Sheriff’s Office; the two agencies typically respond to a rescue operation together and support one another. Due to members’specialized training and equipment, the versatile team provides services that other public safety agencies cannot.

The duties of WCSAR members are numerous and challenging. They respond to a variety of emergency situations in both rural and urban situations to help locate missing persons, recover stranded vehicles, aid in the safe recovery of persons lost or injured in the wilderness, assist first responders with medical calls in remote areas, assist law enforcement with the recovery of human remains and assist emergency personnel during evacuations or large-scale disasters.

In addition to participating in rescue operations, members also receive training in first aid, CPR, wilderness survival, radio communication and all-terrain vehicle safety. Some have expertise in a specific type of rescue, such as rope, ground or swift water, and some are divers.

Members of WCSAR assist an injured hiker on the Red Mountain, Ivins, Utah, Mar. 11, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue

Members face many perils while conducting a rescue operation. Jesse Williams, deputy liaison between the Sheriff’s Office and WCSAR, said that the team rarely works under ideal conditions. They are called to work in the worst imaginable weather conditions in desolate areas of the county, which is inherently dangerous.

Most members also have another job or a busy home life, which makes for an added challenge.

“The timing of searches seems to be inconvenient,” Jesse Leavitt, a 9-year veteran of WCSAR, said. “I (could be) at dinner with my family, sleeping in the middle of the night or in the middle of a project, but no matter what it is, I have to drop whatever I am doing and assist.”

Life Flight involvement

Intermountain Life Flight serves many needs. It can locate a stranded person much quicker than a ground search team and transport an injured person to the hospital faster than an ambulance. The paramedic and flight nurse on board also have the ability to provide medical care while flying.

Paramedic on board the Life Flight helicopter, Ivins, Utah, Mar. 11, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue

The typical cost of running the helicopter is $1,300 to $1,500 per hour, covering fuel and manpower. However, Life Flight’s involvement in SAR operations is budgeted as part of Intermountain Healthcare’s gratuitous community service, and the person rescued is not charged unless they require transportation.

As with all other Intermountain services, financial assistance is available to eligible patients who cannot afford Life Flight transportation. Patients are allowed to refuse transportation by signing the necessary paperwork, though it is not recommended.

Life Flight became operational in Washington County 18 months ago, and since then has aided in dozens of rescues. Both Williams and current WCSAR Commander Casey Lofthouse said that having a helicopter available in the local area is a tremendous benefit to their efforts.

Funding and operational costs

WCSAR is an entirely volunteer organization. Its 72 members are unpaid and provide their own equipment, from radios and GPS units to climbing gear and vehicles.

The annual budget for WCSAR is $20,000, provided through the Sheriff’s Office by the Washington County Commission. For 2013, they received a one-time bonus of $8,000 to replace critical equipment. Williams said this budget is expected to stay flat even as costs rise due to inflation.

Additional funding is provided by the state of Utah, from a portion of every off-highway vehicle registration fee. State contribution for SAR expenses varies annually and reimburses some of the search, training and equipment expenses. The attached financial report demonstrates the state’s participation in detail: Utah Search and Rescue Annual Report 2011.

WCSAR members recover a stranded vehicle from the Hurricane Sand Dunes, Hurricane, Utah, Sept. 15, 2011 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue

Of the 50 to 60 rescue operations WCSAR participates in each year, none are alike. The victim’s medical condition, manpower required, time spent on scene and aerial assistance from Life Flight all contribute to the cost variant.

In a typical rescue, WCSAR responded to a report of an injured hiker in the Tuacahn Pass on Nov. 18, 2012, an incident St. George News covered. Life Flight was used to locate the hiker, a woman with a fractured leg, but she was located in a spot where the helicopter could not land. Rescuers hiked through Snow Canyon State Park to reach her and transport her to the waiting helicopter, which then took her to the hospital.

Seventeen WCSAR members were involved in the rescue, which took just over three hours. The total cost of the operation was $826, not counting separate medical transportation expenses for the victim.

The payoff

WCSAR faces more than its fair share of adversity, be it from the unpredictable weather and hazardous terrain of Southern Utah, naysayers in the public and political communities or a tight budget.

A WCSAR member en route to a rescue, St. George, Utah, Apr. 12, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue

For most members, however, the challenge itself is the reward. Many who participate in WCSAR are outdoor enthusiasts who simply want to help in any way they can.

“A volunteer SAR team is important to a community,” said Boyd Barney, an 11-year veteran and the former commander of WCSAR. “If we were paid county employees, the cost for our training and searches would make it impossible to give this service for free.”

Williams said, “If you need help in the back country of Washington County, there are good people who will come (to your aid.) We look forward to serving as long as we are able.”

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Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2013, all rights reserved.

Members of WCSAR, Life Flight and the Washington County Sheriff’s Department assist a hiker with medical issues, St. George, Utah, Feb. 25, 2012 | Photo courtesy of Washington County Sheriff Search and Rescue

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1 Comment

  • Knine January 16, 2013 at 10:06 pm

    Very informative look into this very valuable organization. Thank You WCSAR for you dedication and service.

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