‘I don’t know what to do’; County officials fear constant search and rescue calls will burn out, deter volunteers

ST. GEORGE — As calls for search and rescue operations increase – and happen almost daily in some instances – county officials are worried. Their concern is whether the volunteers who donate hundreds of hours of their time may either burn out or respond less so they can still earn a living at jobs they’ve consistently had to leave for the sake of others.

Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin spoke to St. George News about the worry he has for search and rescue volunteers being run ragged by constant calls, St. George, Utah, Oct. 20, 2020 | Photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Between Sept. 15 and Oct. 20, the Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue team responded to 26 emergency calls of various types, Washington County Sheriff’s Sgt. Darrell Cashin told the Washington County Commission Tuesday. They have already set a record for the number of responses in one year.

There were cases of lost and injured hikers, bicycle and utility vehicle crashes and other incidents that search and rescue volunteers responded to in some of the usual places – Sand Mountain, Snow Canyon, the Bear Claw Poppy Trail. While some days were quiet, others had multiple calls in the same day or occurred three days in a row.

“It has been off the charts,” Cashin, who serves as the liaison between the Sheriff’s Office and search and rescue, told the commissioners, adding it began to feel like the dispatches for the volunteers were “almost every day.”

Cashin also reported that the total man-hours donated by responding volunteers for the month was 464. He also said the majority of the people the search and rescue teams helped were visitors from outside the county.

By Tuesday, the county’s search and rescue team had responded to 149 calls for the year, with the very real likelihood of more on the horizon. Last year, the number of total responses was 130, which was three shy of the record.

“How is the search and rescue team and the members holding up with the huge lift they are being asked to perform?” Commissioner Dean Cox asked.

Search and Rescue crews respond to Snow Canyon State Park after a free climber fell an estimated 25 feet, Ivins, Utah, May 19, 2020 | File photo by Ryne Williams, St. George News

“I am concerned. I am deeply concerned,” Cashin said. “The amount of calls, how fast they are coming – I’m getting less and less people (able) to respond.”

Reasons there have been fewer responses has been due to primary obligations the volunteers have like making sure they make enough money to pay their mortgages and feed their families, Cashin said.

“Each of these volunteers have jobs,” he said.

On a call that occurred Monday involving an injured cyclist on the Bear Claw Poppy Trail, Cashin said he made two calls to volunteers that either went either unanswered or came back with replies that they could roll out in a short while, but not immediately. This resulted in Cashin falling back on the Sheriff’s Office and calling in deputies for aid. While there was a willingness to help, he said, this was complicated by deputies not being readily available either as two were on patrol in other parts of the county and another was acting as a bailiff in court.

Despite the initial struggle to get people to respond, the sheriff’s deputies did go out to aid the injured cyclist with the aid of some search and rescue volunteers who joined them later on.

While he was grateful to be able to call on the sheriff’s deputies for help, especially when extra manpower is needed, Cashin said a disadvantage of using the deputies is they may not be as well-trained in search and rescue operations as some of the volunteers are. Some of the more technical and complicated rescues, which can involve rope rescues for example, require specially trained individuals to pull them off.

The Washington County Search and Rescue team responded to the report of an injured woman at Gunlock State Park, Washington County, Utah, May 2, 2020 | File photo by Hollie Reina, St. George News

While deputies and responding volunteers were able to aid and retrieve the injured cyclist, Cashin said he feared the situation will only get worse.

“It’s not a question of willingness,” Cashin said. “It’s a question of how many times can you leave work. This is becoming almost every day… I feel like we’re running head-on into a brick wall and we can see it coming, but I don’t have the answers. I don’t know what to do.”

Cashin said he was also concerned about the volunteers becoming overtired and fatigued by constant calls. It could result in potential errors in judgment and injury, he said.

There was talk between Cashin and the commissioners of utilizing additional resources, such as fire departments. The St. George Fire Department has its own technical rope rescue team, for example. However, Cashin said he was hesitant to use them because of the potential for calling on them too much – especially now.

He said the same about the Life Flight helicopter based at Dixie Regional Medical Center. When he calls for help, the helicopter and its team come flying in. He wonders how often he can use that resource before it starts to interfere with Life Flight’s own operations.

“I don’t feel like burning out Life Flight,” he said.

In this November 2017 file photo, an Intermountain Life Flight helicopter transports the victim of an ATV rollover, Sand Hollow State Park, Utah, Nov. 27, 2017 | File photo courtesy of Washington County Search and Rescue, St. George News

The topic of compensating the volunteers for their time came up during the commission meeting. Cashin noted that Grand and Wasatch counties had experienced the same problems with high callout volumes for search and rescue and began paying their search and rescue volunteers.

Grand County made its volunteers part-time, while Wasatch County moved to a stipend system, Cashin said. He added there was a third option of paying a set rate for each call that could be determined on an individual volunteer’s training and experience.

Speaking with St. George News following Tuesday’s County Commission meeting, Cashin said something needs to be done to help take the pressure off the volunteers.

“It’s making a real financial hit to a lot of them,” he said. “So they become more reluctant to come out.”

One potential source of revenue that could go to help pay the volunteers is the Transient Room Tax, commonly referred to as TRT. The tax is paid by people who visit the county and stay in hotels and similar accommodations. However, the state tightly regulates how counties are able to apply TRT funding.

While less populated counties are able to use TRT funds to help pay for search and rescue-related items, that does not apply to Washington County under state code.

Search and rescue crews arrive at the scene to help a couple of teens who were stranded on a ledge in the Babylon area south of Leeds on Feb. 10, 2018 | File photo Courtesy of Washington County Search and Rescue

That could change next year if legislation that Rep. Lowy Snow, R-Santa Clara, is planning to introduce in the next legislative session passes.

“It would give more leeway to the County Commission to apply those funds (to search and rescue),” Snow said. “Tourists are driving that surge in calls, and it is significant.”

Cashin estimated that over 60% of the search and rescue calls the team gets involve visitors from outside Washington County.

“The non-resident population puts a very hard strain on local search and rescue budgets,” Sen. Don Ipson, R-St. George said in a text to St. George News, adding he would support the idea of adapting TRT use for a county’s search and rescue needs depending on how it is structured.

Overall funding for Washington County’s Search and Recuse team comes from state fees paid toward registration and renewal of off-road vehicles and boats, as well as fishing and hunting licenses. Additional funding comes from private donations and fundraisers held by area businesses.

Members of the Washington County Search and Rescue team were sent to Snow Canyon State Park after two 15-year-old girls fell 30 feet or more from a ledge. Snow Canyon State Park, Ivins, Utah, March 14, 2016 | File photo by Mori Kessler, St. George News

Unfortunately, private donations to the search and rescue team are down this year due to annual fundraisers being canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cashin said.

And while the subject is brought up in Facebook comments on occasion, the county will not start charging people who end up triggering a search and rescue call. If the county started to do that, then money it currently receives from the state to help recuperate the cost of search and rescue operations would no longer be available, Cashin said.

“I don’t think we’re going to have less people visit. I don’t think we’re going to have less people move here, so we’re going to have more demand.” Cashin said.

If there’s anything residents and visitors in Washington County can do to help ease the search and rescue team’s increasing burden, Cashin said, it would be by being prepared before venturing into the outdoors.

“When you go out, really prepare for it. Prepare for the unknown,” he said, adding most rescues involve going after unprepared people. “Help us reduce the amount of rescues by being prepared yourself.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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