Readiness training for Davis County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team

Jan 31 2010 - 6:11pm

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(Erin Hooley/Standard-Examiner) Members of the Davis County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team practice taking a victim to safety near Snowbasin Road.
(Erin Hooley/Standard-Examiner) Members of the Davis County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team practice taking a victim to safety near Snowbasin Road.

HUNTSVILLE -- Hours after it had finished training in blizzard conditions, the Davis County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team put their skills to the test to bring two stranded snowmobilers out of the mountains above Bountiful.

"They were better prepared than most," said Rex Mumford, commander of the all-volunteer team, referring to the snowmobilers stuck in the mountains in snow that was four feet to six feet deep on Jan. 23. The two snowmobilers had avalanche beacons, probes and shovels, but still needed help, Mumford said.

The rescue team is on heightened awareness because of current snow conditions in the back country. They expect to help snowmobilers, skiers or snowboarders, not only in Davis County but surrounding areas as well, who find themselves in dangerous situations.

Earlier that day, 12 members of the 35-member Davis County Sheriff's Search and Rescue team completed a training session in similar blizzard conditions on the road leading to Snowbasin.

The team has spent several Saturday mornings training for recertification with the Mountain Rescue Association and will continue to do so into March.

On Jan. 23 at Snowbasin, their "mock victim" was 51-year-old Curtis Cottrell, who stepped into a stretcher that would carry his 6-foot-4-inch, 250-pound body to the top of the 25-degree sloped hill in waist-high, powdery snow.

Cottrell is a 17-year-veteran of the all-volunteer search and rescue group, which assists Davis County Sheriff's Office and other agencies along the Wasatch Front.

"We train in all weather because most callouts occur in the worst weather," Mumford said.

Four search and rescue teams -- Davis, Weber, Salt Lake and Utah counties -- are MRA certified, Cottrell said.

Mumford said the team practices avalanche and snow rescues at least once a week.

Rescuing injured people in the snow poses challenges, the least of which include locating where to anchor ropes in order to hoist a victim from a ledge or canyon to a safe spot where a helicopter or vehicle can transport them.

Cottrell agreed to be the victim that Saturday because he will be one of the evaluators of the certification process.

Michelle Moss, 34, of Sunset, was in charge of the rope system. Her job was to watch the ropes as other team members pulled the stretcher bringing Cottrell to the top.

She joined the team about two years ago.

"Search and rescue is not just a guy thing," Moss said.

Moss, who works for a wind and solar company, decided to join the team after seeing a news story. She is a member of the mountain team, which not only performs rescues on snow covered hills in the winter, but also practices in the summer, rappelling down cliffs to rescue victims.

Moss and other team members discussed options for anchoring the rope system into the snow. They used aluminum plates slightly angled with holes that ropes can be tied to. The harder the ropes are pulled the deeper the plate digs into the ground.

The ropes are tied to two anchors at the top, in a "V-shape," just in case one anchor gives way, Mumford said.

As Moss remained at the top by the anchors monitoring the rope system, four team members securely strapped Cottrell in and lifted the stretcher up the hill as other members pulled it to the top.

Following the mock rescue, the team discussed how they could improve their skills.

"Each rescue is different," said Steve Santella of Fruit Heights. "Each situation is unique and you have to improvise."

For the first time, the team used a new stretcher that had color coded bars and straps. The new stretcher, once they get used to it, will make it faster to get the patient "packaged," said Jason Chapman, a Layton resident.

"Once we learn how the straps and buckles go it should speed us up," Chapman said.

While getting someone off the mountain fast is a plus, Mumford said, safety is always the top consideration.

Following the mock rescue, Mumford surprised the team with a call to find three beacons buried in spots on the snow-covered hill. The beacons represented three people who may have been buried in an avalanche. It took the members less than one minute to find all three.

Becoming a member of the search and rescue team is not all that hard, but a physical exam is required, Mumford said. The team spends time year-round hiking Davis County canyons not only to get to know the terrain but to get in shape.

The team gets funding from grants from United Way of Salt Lake and Wal-Mart, as well as donations from grateful people the team has rescued, Moss said. The sheriff's office also contributes funds.

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