Rain or shine, Summit County Search and Rescue will find you
December 5, 2014
When a teenage hiker was separated from the rest of his party in the Uinta Mountains on New Year’s Eve in the early 1990s, the Summit County Search and Rescue team was deployed without hesitation.
The weather that evening hovered around -30 degrees and there was plenty of snow on the ground, but the search operations continued well into the night. With the help of aerial support, the teen was eventually located in a canyon, not far away from the trail. Even though the teen ended up losing some of his extremities due to frostbite, it was still considered a good day for the search-and-rescue team.
"There is not a better drug on this planet," Search and Rescue (SAR) District Leader Kevin Todd said of successfully locating lost individuals. "There is nothing that will replace the feeling that you get when you return a child to their family or a father to their family. And kids are the hardest situations, so I think they are the most rewarding rescues.
"And I think that is what keeps people going," he added. "There are a lot of stressful situations that we get thrown into year after year and you have to play on the good to keep going."
There are 45 individuals currently on the roster who are willing to make themselves available day or night for any amount of time, regardless of the weather, to assist in search and rescue operations.
"The bottom line is that we could not manage search and rescue without the volunteers," Summit County Sheriff’s Department Search and Rescue liaison Alan Siddoway said.
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"The heart of the organization is the volunteer and we will never compel them to accept a mission and we don’t have to. They are all heart. They go and they do and they spend 24 to 36 hours donating to a cause."
Utah statute requires local Sheriff’s Departments to invest in and support a search and rescue team. In 2013, 745 people were rescued by search and rescue teams in Utah, according to the annual search and rescue report.
Summit County’s SAR operations are nested within the Sheriff’s Department, which coordinates with individuals within the organization to facilitate a search-and-rescue operation.
"We happen to have one of the best search-and-rescue groups in North America," Summit County Sheriff Dave Edmunds said. "They are routinely at some of the most difficult search-and-rescue areas in the country or even world."
Summit County SAR responds throughout the entire county, sometimes venturing into Uinta County, Wyoming. Agreements are also in place between other neighboring counties in case a situation arises where outside assistance is needed.
The response time from the SAR team for any given situation can be as little as 30 minutes, depending on the time of day. Most members work with their employers and families to allow their schedules to remain flexible.
"They get called out on holidays, in the middle of the night, they have to leave birthday parties and anniversaries," Edmunds said. "They go through all sorts of difficulties with themselves and their families to do the critical work they do."
SAR rapidly became a top priority for Edmunds early in his career because several searches garnered international media attention, he explained.
"I realized we are a resort destination, not only on the West Side but also on the East Side," he said. "Every time I talk about search and rescue, I have a profound respect for them. It’s almost difficult to talk about because you forge such tight relations with them and the fact they have served me as sheriff so well. I love those people and I say that very confidently."
SAR operates on a budget of approximately $76,000 from the county, in addition to an in-house trust fund. Fundraisers and donations are the main funding sources for that trust.
Throughout the years and with the help of grants, SAR has expanded its equipment fleet to include snowmobiles, ATVs, a snowcat vehicle, and a submersible, underwater vehicle capable of performing deep water dives.
This time of year is typically slower for SAR, with the weather changes and the end of hunting season, there isn’t enough snow for people to get into the backcountry, yet.
The most recent rescue SAR had was in October, when it assisted Wasatch County in safely locating an overdue hunter.
But not all search and rescue attempts are successful and not all days are good. Some cases weigh more heavily on the minds of those involved than others.
During Todd’s 24 years with SAR, he recalled two cases that had tragic outcomes. One of them involved Garrett Bardsley.
Bardsley was 10 years old when he disappeared from a Boy Scout trip in the Uinta Mountains in 2004 and his body was never recovered.
"There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about him and I’m sure it’s the same way with the others," Todd said. "We have a very close-knit group and so I think we feed off of the bond that we have with each other, knowing that we’re going to be OK. There’s no doubt, that in the 24 years I’ve been doing this that I’ve seen and done some things that I will never be able to get out of my head. And we’ve lost some very good members that just can’t deal with it.
"You just try and bury it as deep in your hard drive as you can," he said.
Survival tips from an expert:
When going on an outdoor outing, Todd recommends letting someone know where you are going and when you will be back, and to maintain composure if you become lost, because someone will find you.
"If you’re lost, just know we are going to be on your trail," he said. "Every person on that search and rescue team is doing it for the right reasons. It’s not for pay, glory or fame. It’s because we like to help people and we’re a group. If one succeeds, we all succeed. If one of us fails, we all fail. That’s our mentality."
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