Moab mishaps require extreme help
Rescuers pull out all the stops in red-rock country
By Pat Reavy
Deseret Morning News
MOAB ó Grand County's backcountry attracts scores of extreme sports enthusiasts. And sometimes those people require extreme rescues.
Grand County Emergency Services director Mark Marcum points out the specialized equipment his crews use on search-and-rescue calls in slick-rock country.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Take, for example, 2002's annual Jeep Safari weekend. Three people in an SUV were traveling down the sandstone of Lion's Back trail, about four miles east of Moab in the popular Sand Flats area. The sandstone gave way and the vehicle did a nose dive off the side of the cliff, plunging 45 feet to the crevice below.
With the vehicle solidly wedged between the sheer cliff walls, rescuers could reach the victims only by lowering a rope from a helicopter. The three were hoisted to safety, and none suffered life-threatening injuries.
The vehicle remains lodged at the bottom of the crevice.
The rescue was one of 80 calls that Grand County Search and Rescue responded to last year. Crews responded to accidents involving biking, hiking, climbing and rafting, said Rex Tanner, commander of the county's search and rescue squad and a Grand County commissioner.
Through late June of this year crews had responded to 38 calls, including the drowning of a 5-year-old Orem boy in the Colorado River on June 22.
The drowning marked the fourth recreational death in the Moab area this year. The other deaths were the results of rock climbing, ATV and BASE jumping accidents.
The experience gained from rescuing people in the backcountry has paid off; the Grand County Search and Rescue unit is now regarded as one of the best in the state, Tanner says. Whether team members are carrying injured hikers out of a lightning storm from the top of a plateau or rappelling a steep cliff to retrieve a stranded climber, they routinely put their lives on the line.
Volunteers are the backbone of all rescue efforts in Grand County. Since most rescues happen at dusk, Tanner said it's not uncommon for team members to get called out at 7 p.m. after working all day at their regular jobs, do a grueling rescue until 4 a.m. and then wake up a few hours later to go to work again.
"It's amazing the dedication it takes to be a volunteer," said Grand County EMS director Mark Marcum. "The community doesn't realize these people are doing it because they love it. It's definitely not for the money."
In addition to the 25 volunteers of the search and rescue team, there are two full-time members of Grand County Emergency Medical Services. Thirty-five other EMS workers are part-time.
They have a lot of ground to cover. Grand County is about 3,600 square miles, but less than 5 percent of that land is private property. Public land includes both Arches and Canyonlands national parks as well as the La Sal Mountains and Moab, one of the national hubs for outdoor recreation.
Moab has about 4,200 full-time residents. But during a peak weekend, tourists temporarily boost the head count to more than 30,000. Grand County receives 1 million visitors a year, according to the National Park Service.
Though it seems hard to imagine now, there was a day when recreationists hadn't discovered Moab. In 1985, search and rescue crews were called out only nine times. That number grew to 43 by 1987 and reached its peak in 1998 with 123 calls, Tanner said. Emergency crews had to learn quickly how to handle extreme situations.
"We didn't have a choice," Tanner said. "You get 80 calls a year, you better figure this out."
Rescuers in Grand County began modifying existing equipment to get the job done more efficiently.
The six-wheel ATV "Ranger" or "Gator" ambulance is one of the county's most effective rescue vehicles in the rocky backcountry. Rescuers made many of their own modifications to the ATV, including mounting a gurney to the back of the vehicle.
Grand County Search-and-Rescue Commander Rex Tanner explains that the increase in emergency calls has forced the crews to learn how to handle every situation and become familiar with all kinds of rescue gear.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News
Tanner would like to see the state recognize the Ranger as an official ambulance. Right now, road ambulances and medical helicopters are recognized, thus giving agencies the option of collecting fees for transporting patients.
"A road ambulance does not work in this environment," he said. "We want the state to recognize that a lot of rescues are taking place with equipment not acceptable by the state."
Jan Buttrey, director of the state Bureau of Emergency Medical Services, said the problem is that insurance agencies reimburse only for the vehicles that take a patient directly to the hospital, such as road ambulances or medical helicopters. Gators are used to transport patients from accident scenes to areas where a regular ambulance or helicopter can reach them.
However, Buttrey said the Utah Department of Health is in the initial stages of drafting a rule that would allow agencies to bill a patient for on-scene care, including Gators.
"They are responding to so many calls, they are scrambling to find ways to support this," she said.
The costs for equipment add up quickly, too. A device called an Arizona Vortex used in rock rescues costs $7,000. But it is an additional $3,000 per individual for the specialized training needed to operate the equipment, Tanner said.
All of these costs can add up fast for a search and rescue unit that has an annual budget of $55,000.
In addition, rescuers routinely spend money out of their own pockets to properly equip themselves. Those specialized in rock rescues, for example, have to spend $800 on equipment.
In recent years the county has also been working to prevent backcountry accidents.
About 60 percent of the calls search-and-rescue crews receive are for injury accidents, but the other 40 percent are for lost or overdue hikers. About 99 percent of all calls are from tourists, Tanner said.
That's why the county is working with local businesses to help educate visitors. Bike shops are encouraged to talk to customers and find out if they know where they're going. Since 78 percent of the county's revenue is based on sales tax, it benefits everyone if store owners get involved, Tanner said.
County officials also work closely with the National Parks and Forest services. The groups analyze where the volume of calls originates and take appropriate action.
For example, Tanner said, search crews were receiving a high number of lost-hiker calls from the Poison Spider area not too long ago. More signs were subsequently posted in the area, and the volume of calls began to decrease.
It's important for outdoor recreationists to take their own precautions when they set out for the backcountry. If they need help, they probably won't be able to get medical attention for at least an hour.
Marcum said recreationists need to remember that for serious accidents the nearest medical helicopter service is still more than 100 miles away at St. Mary's Care Flight out of Grand Junction, Colo. There have been cases in the past where it takes six hours for someone to get to the hospital after being hurt, he said.
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