Live Mic: Search and rescue calls shoot up in Utah during pandemic

UPDATED: OCTOBER 28, 2020 AT 5:52 PM

SALT LAKE CITY — What is the ultimate in social distancing? Being alone in the wilderness, of course. But one drawback is that some of those ultimate social-distancers find themselves in need of search and rescue.

Shaun Roundy of the Utah County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue joined the host of KSL Newsradio’s Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry to talk about how COVID-19 has impacted search and rescue efforts as more folks head out into the great outdoors.

Yellowstone National Park recorded a 21% increase in visitors in September, compared to September of 2019. On Memorial Day, Zion National Park was at full capacity by 6:30 a.m., according to Deseret News.

Roundy said that more hikers mean more hikers needing to be located and rescued. He also said more hikers means more hikers with little to no hiking experience.

“We usually get 80 to 100 rescue missions a year [in Utah County],” Roundy said. “We are currently sitting at 115. It is a much heavier load.”

Always be prepared

“Are you finding — needing to go out and find and rescue — individuals who are just unprepared?” Lee asked.

Roundy said in the spring when temperatures were cooler and there was more snow, lack of preparation was evident.

He recalled rescuing a couple who had climbed a peak only to find themselves waist-deep in snow on the other side of the mountain. They were wearing denim.

“Cotton is not the thing to wear. I want to emphasize this with winter coming up, with the cold. If you get wet, cotton will just draw the heat off your body,” said Roundy. “We call it Killer Cloth.

“They [the rescued hikers] just got exhausted. They didn’t have enough food or water. We found them just as it was getting dark. They didn’t have any lights,” Roundy said. “We gave them some calories and some hydration and got them down off the trail just fine. That was typical of what we were seeing, and we’re kinda concerned that that’s what we’ll see again now.”

What does search and rescue involve?

“Are some of these extractions, are they requiring aircraft for the most part? Or, as you have described here, you get folks warm and get some calories in them and are able to accompany back down the trail. What is the nature of the rescue efforts?” Lee asked.

Roundy said some hikers push beyond their boundaries by hiking too far and then realize they don’t have the needed stamina to turn around and hike back to safety.

He added that cellphone technology is a blessing and a curse.

“When you dial 911 on your phone, if it’s GPS-enabled, we know your location,” Roundy said. “That makes it so much easier.”

“On the other hand, it does means people call us when they otherwise would’ve had to get out of trouble themselves,” he said, adding, “If you’re in trouble, don’t hesitate to call. We’re volunteers. We’re free. The only time you get charged is if you go in a medical helicopter.”

Who are the volunteers?

“Talk to me about the type of person who approaches a search-and-rescue team and says, ‘I’d like to help?'” Lee asked.

Roundy said sometimes people who want to join a search-and-rescue team are enthralled by the activities of the job, such as riding motorcycles, but when they learn they won’t get paid, their enthusiasm drops.

Roundy said for people who have an aptitude for the outdoors and have something to contribute, such as medical skills, saving a life or bringing closure to a family when a body is recovered is “really, really rewarding.”

He said that becoming a volunteer requires a large time commitment and “a big money commitment,” if you don’t have the required gear.

“You don’t have to be a great rock climber, although, that’s fantastic,” he said. 

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Live Mic with Lee Lonsberry can be heard weekdays from 12:30 p.m. to 3:00 p.m. on KSL NewsRadio. Users can find the show on the KSL NewsRadio website and app.