We’re a volunteer group. Not everyone can make it to every call. Some members of our team have flexible work schedules or understanding employers. Others don’t. If you’re available to go to a rescue, you go. If you’re not, you don’t. We do have minimum attendance requirements to make sure that our members stay well trained and ready for rescues, but we also understand that members have other commitments and obligations in their lives.
Technical rock rescue is what we do the most, and we expect all of our members to be proficient in these skills. We also expect each member to be skilled in the use of an avalanche beacon and to understand basic avalanche safe travel techniques. Beyond that – yes – members specialize in different types of rescue. Some members are experienced backcountry skiers and take a larger role in ski rescues. Some have more experience in swiftwater rescue and would take the lead there. Some of our members are divers, most are not. A few of our members train search dogs. We do many different types of rescue and there’s room for different interests within the group.
No. We provide our services free of charge to anyone who needs our help. If a patient is transported to a hospital by air or ground ambulance, then they will be charged just as they would for an urban medical call, but Search and Rescue services are free.
Yes. We have an active and successful PSAR (Preventative Search and Rescue) program. We believe strongly in mountain safety education and work to prevent accidents from occurring. For more information about our PSAR program, contact us at the UPD at 743-5656.
No. Situations where we actually have to lead climb to an injured person are rare. Usually people fall to more accessible places or there’s an easier way to get up above the patient and rappel down to them. However, many of our rescues take place in steep, exposed, technical terrain. Climbers are often used to this type of environment, so the experience is valuable. In addition, the techniques we use in technical rescue are common to many climbing techniques. We set anchors, tie knots, lower loads, belay and rappel. We teach all these skills to our members and expect them to maintain their proficiency. Our lives depend on it.
We have three full-time members of the UPD on our team. They are an asset to our team, but for them, rescue is a side-job to their regular role as officers. Paid positions in rescue are very few and far between. There are some paid positions in National Park rescue organizations, but for the most part, mountain rescue in the United States is carried out by volunteers.
Normally when we get a rescue call, the whole team is paged. Whoever is available responds, and calls on the radio to let us know they’re coming. We usually get enough response on the first page to carry out an effective rescue. If not enough members respond to the first page, dispatch will put out a second page.
911 calls are routed to the UPD dispatch center. For any situation more than a short distance from the road, dispatch will page the Search and Rescue team. We all wear alphanumeric pagers. When a call goes out, the page will include as much information as is known about the situation – including the location to meet, the type of incident and necessary gear.
Most of our calls last a few hours. There aren’t very many places in the Wasatch that are really remote, and most of the accidents tend to be closer to the trailheads. We do sometimes get searches that last for multiple days, but those cases are rare.
The number of volunteer members is usually around 30. We also have three paid officers who are skilled members of the team and participate in the rescues. We try to keep the size of the team around this level. If the team gets much larger, team members get bored with the lack of activity and don’t stay well trained. If the team gets much smaller, we risk not having enough people to carry out effective rescues.
Rescuers going out and putting their lives on the line is strictly Hollywood. The number one rule of rescue is not to create a second victim. A rescuer’s first priority is to themselves. Their second priority is to their team, and the third priority is to the patient. We do everything we can to carry out a rescue without risking our lives. Statistically, the most dangerous aspect of mountain rescue is the drive to and from the trailhead. Rescue work provides plenty of excitement and reward, but it’s not for thrill-seekers.
We are not usually out in a storm for the simple reason that people usually go out into the mountains in good weather. The more people are out, the more accidents happen. Of course, sometimes people get hurt right when a storm comes in – and then we go rescue them in the storm. By contrast, night rescues happen all the time. Most rescues start at the end of the day and finish in the dark. Don’t forget your headlamp!
Not as much as you might think. Yes – we do rescue injured people all the time, but most of the team will be doing the evacuation and not the medical care. Rescues in the backcountry usually involve a long response time, so patients tend to be in stable condition if they’re alive. In addition, the local Fire agency will respond into the field with us if the patient is accessible. They have highly trained emergency medical workers, and they take care of the medical care when they’re there.
No. If your goal is to work in law enforcement, you should pursue that directly. We’re a volunteer mountain rescue team. We are sworn members of the Salt Lake County Sheriff’s Office, but we have no law enforcement powers.
We’re responsible for Salt Lake County, which includes the Oquirrh Mountains and the Wasatch Mountains as far East as the divide with Park City, as far North as City Creek Canyon and Big Mountain Pass, and as far South as Lone Peak. In the Winter, the ski areas generally take care of problems within the resorts, although we are sometimes asked to help. We are called to assist teams outside of Salt Lake County a few times a year.
New team members will need to own at least a climbing harness, a day pack, a headlamp, boots and clothing appropriate to all seasons and all weather. The team provides radios, pagers, climbing helmets, life jackets, avalanche transceivers and other essential safety gear in addition to the ropes, litters and other equipment we use to do rescues. New team members typically find themselves wanting to acquire more gear such as backcountry ski gear, snowshoes, or climbing equipment during their first year with the team, but these are not essential and do not need to be purchased before joining.
The time commitment averages five to ten hours a week. Of course, this varies with the year, the season, and random chance. Our busiest months have on rare occasions averaged more than one call per day. Occasionally we have a month with only one or two calls. Probationary members must meet a higher attendance requirement and attend our introductory rescue class. In addition, new members usually start in the busiest time of year, so in some years the demands on the members’ time in the first Summer can be overwhelming.
The time commitment averages five to ten hours a week. Of course, this varies with the year, the season, and random chance. Our busiest months have on rare occasions averaged more than one call per day. Occasionally we have a month with only one or two calls. Probationary members must meet a higher attendance requirement and attend our introductory rescue class. In addition, new members usually start in the busiest time of year, so in some years the demands on the members’ time in the first Summer can be overwhelming.We all volunteer to do rescue work because we enjoy it, so the time is usually not a burden, but it can affect relationships and employers. We ask prospective members to discuss this issue with their family and significant others so that everyone understands and agrees up front.
We search for lost or missing people in the mountains. We rescue injured hikers on trails and injured climbers in steep, technical areas. We rescue injured skiers, snowshoers, snowboarders, ice climbers, and snowmobilers in the winter. We do avalanche rescue both in the backcountry and when avalanches hit mountain roads. We do swiftwater rescue in the creeks and rivers. We rescue boaters on the Great Salt Lake. We do dive rescue in the lake and in local reservoirs. Occasionally we are called for plane crashes. We also occasionally search in town – typically for lost kids or to help the UPD find evidence.Our most common calls in the summer are for lost or injured hikers. Our most common calls in the winter are for backcountry users on any type of snow travel gear.
Summer is our busiest season, but Winter rescues have been increasing lately. Over the last few years, the number of serious accidents involving climbers has been dropping, while Winter backcountry use in the Wasatch Mountains has been accelerating.The majority of our calls happen on evenings and weekends, since that is when the largest number of people are out in the mountains. Often calls start in the late afternoon or evening after someone has hiked out to get help, or after someone fails to return home.