ST. GEORGE — While the Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team responded to fewer calls this year than last, the total still ended up higher than 2019 and prior years.
“Things have slowed down a little bit,” Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin told the Washington County Commission as he gave the monthly emergency services report on Dec. 21. “We only had seven calls last month, which is enough to keep everybody busy but isn’t overwhelming.”
The county search and rescue team is nearing the end of 2021 with 151 calls as of Monday, though there is still potential for some additional calls between now and the end of the month. This total is a drop from 2020’s all-time high of 174 calls. In contrast, 2019 saw 130 calls.
“It’s down from last year, but up from every other year before,” Cashin said, adding that he thinks the years of only having 70, 80 or 90 calls are “gone forever.”
When Cashin spoke to the County Commission, the search and rescue team had responded to 148 calls overall. This changed over the holiday as search and rescue was called in to help with the search for a missing Enterprise man and a medical situation involving a hiker on a trail in Padre Canyon.
Both incidents involved fatalities.
Search and rescue volunteers went out again Tuesday afternoon to Diamond Valley after receiving a report that a horse had returned to the area without its rider. Fearing the rider may have been throw off the horse and was injured, a search began. However, it turned out the rider was fine, and the horse had just “gotten away from her.”
‘Something needed to happen’
Search and rescue calls have been increasing year over year as the area continues to see a spike in growth and people recreating across the county. Visitors to the area jumped dramatically in 2020 due to Utah largely remaining open for recreation while other states had shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The situation became concerning for county officials by fall of 2020 as search and rescue volunteers seemed to respond to calls on a near-constant basis.
Cashin said there were worries that search and rescue volunteers were going to get burned out and not respond to calls as often as it took them away from hours they would otherwise be working and possibly providing for a family.
At the time, there was talk among the County Commission about compensating the search and rescue volunteers somehow.
Other Utah counties experiencing similar spikes in search and rescue activity had opted to make the volunteers part-time employees or provide them with a stipend, Cashin told St. George News.
“They got so busy in 2020, they were losing hours at (their regular) work,” he said. “Something needed to happen.”
The county’s answer to the issue eventually came in the form of a “pay-for-call” system ranging from $50 to $100 per call based on the training and experience of individual volunteers. It is a set rate, with the same amount being paid out whether a search and rescue response lasts 30 minutes or 10 hours.
“It all equals out,” Cashin said, adding that the average search and rescue operation lasts about three hours.
The pay-for-call compensation for the search and rescue volunteers was added to Washington County’s 2022 budget adopted by the County Commission earlier in December.
“It gives them a little bit of a ‘thank you,’” Cashin said.
Rescues run the gamut from finding stranded, lost or injured hikers to helping the victims of mountain bike, UTV or ATV crashes and tending to the occasional body recovery.
Areas of Washington County that have seen repeated responses by the search and rescue team include Snow Canyon State Park, Red Mountain, the Bear Claw Poppy Trail and Sand Mountain.
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