Notes on the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue Team

In late 2015 I was accepted onto the Utah County Sheriff Search and Rescue team, and for all of 2016 and most of 2017 I participated actively on the team. This web page contains notes I took during that time about what we were doing.

Why put these notes online? There are honorable people on UCSSAR who deserve credit for their service, so this gives them a shout out. At the same time, the Utah County Sheriff’s SAR team frequently gets lost operationally and institutionally, and these notes provide a sketch of a case study on how that happens. Obviously, SAR requires a commitment, and before making that commitment potential volunteers should have a clear idea of what they’re getting into (especially given the large up front financial demands required to do something that for most people doesn’t last more than two or three years, and often much less). Finally, I prefer true stories rather than deliberately untrue ones, and you’ll get the former here. Names have been changed, though.

Two years may not be a lot of time to have gotten experience in search and rescue. However, while on UCSSAR I volunteered about 1,000 hours of my time, some in trainings and meetings and some on the 120 or so call outs I went on. I spent more than $1,800 on gas while driving well over 8,000 miles, and spent almost $5,000 on gear and training, and more on résumé boosting training done before applying, and later on improvements to my truck. I was told at the end of my first year new member evaluation that I got the high score on the mountain rescue skills test, and on the wilderness medicine written questions. In my second year I was occasionally called on to lead teams. All of that is a lot. That said, I did go on more call outs and to more team trainings than anyone else on the team during this time frame, so a volunteer’s load is usually lighter. Typically about a third of the team showed up at call outs, and almost half of the team struggled to make minimum annual attendance standards. Those of us who did make the call outs often spent three to four hours on a call out (except for the many short ones that only lasted a few minutes before we were told by radio that we weren’t needed and could turn around and return home or to work). Occasionally—rarely—we saved a life, but usually we just helped someone who was having difficulty making it back to a trailhead. Most commonly we did this at Stewart Falls, Bridal Veil Falls, or on one of the two summit trails of Mount Timpanogos. On thirteen occasions I helped recover bodies.

Based in part on these experiences, my advice to you if you’re an outdoorsy Utahn or visitor to Utah County is: take time to read the “Hiking Mount Timpanogos Safely” web page before exploring Timp, and just leave the upper cliffs of Bridal Veil Falls entirely alone. Better to avoid danger than to realize too late that you’re going to have to call SAR. Of course, if you’re seriously into outdoor adventure—backcountry skier, caver, kayaker, climber, etc.—you already know that you need to be able to self rescue and do companion rescue (i.e., people up Fifth Water call UCSSAR for help, but the people who go down Sixth Water know they’re taking care of themselves).

A PDF of the notes is displayed below. If it does not display correctly on your device, this link will take you to a standalone PDF of my notes on the Utah County Sheriff SAR team.

Paul Wake

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