OGDEN — As she hiked further up the steep incline, it became very apparent to Barbara Garrett that she had somehow strayed from Ogden’s Indian Trail.
“I was pulling myself up by tree roots,” the Roy woman recalled. The drop-off was perilous, she said, while the terrain, very slick, was covered in frozen snow.
It got to the point that she didn’t want to budge another inch, either up or down the mountain. Scared and too tired to keep moving, she called 9-1-1 on her cellphone and was advised by emergency dispatchers that a drone would be coming her way. “I said, ‘A drone? How will a drone find us?’” she recalled.
Sure enough, though, the flying device found Garrett and her hiking companion, David Burgin of Bountiful. Soon thereafter, a crew from Weber County Search and Rescue made its way to their remote spot, leading the couple — shaken but otherwise unscathed — down to safety.
Garrett and Burgin are sold on the value of using drones in search-and-rescue missions. And now, county leaders and the search-and-rescue team, using that mission early last April as a case in point, are seeking help in getting a bigger and better drone, a $30,000 device. Officials launched a drive Thursday to raise donations for the initiative, saying a new-and-improved drone will further the ability of the county search-and-rescue team to find and aid lost hikers and others who get in jams in the far corners of Weber County.
“The overall goal is to increase safety and save lives in the long run,” said Kyle Nordfors, a Weber County Search and Rescue volunteer who oversees the team’s drone efforts. Drones can more quickly find lost hikers than rescuers trudging through mountainous terrain, speeding rescue efforts.
Lt. Mark Horton from the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, which coordinates with the volunteer search-and-rescue squad, said the existing drone the team uses has helped save at least three people. It’s also been used in less-dire situations, giving rescuers clues about what to expect before reaching those needing help. The more-powerful drone sought will potentially make search-and-rescue efforts quicker, bolstering public safety.
The Bank of Utah provided an initial $1,000 donation and will help promote the fundraising drive to get the other $29,000 that’s needed. Donations may be made on the website of Weber County Search and Rescue, tasked with aiding the public in a range of situations, at webersar.org/donate-to-wcsar.
With the rugged terrain and many outdoors activities in Weber County, the search-and-rescue team was called to service 37 times last year, Horton said. The team, which relies on donations for funding, has experts who can help with water rescues, in avalanches and more. With the COVID-19 pandemic and many public activities halted as a result, more people seem to be engaging in outdoor activities, which has caused an uptick in calls for help, Horton added.
“Every once in a while, unbeknownst to us, we get in a pickle,” said Roger Christensen, a senior vice president at the Bank of Utah who was on hand for Thursday’s event.
‘THE DRONE SAVED OUR LIVES’The DJI Matrice 300 RTK drone that’s sought comes with a high-resolution thermal camera, a much-more-powerful optical camera and a laser range finder that can better help pinpoint the location of those who are sought. The thermal camera helps detect body heat people put off, while the optical camera can zoom in from great heights, enabling operators to better detect what’s on the ground as they carry out searches.
Jon McBride with Centerville-based Rocky Mountain Unmanned Systems, which would provide the drone, demonstrated the sort of device sought by the search-and-rescue team. It flew from the Weber State University parking lot where Thursday’s fundraising launch was made, seeking a pair of sheriff’s office deputies who had planted themselves in the mountainous area to the east.
Hovering at about 500 feet, it found them, conveying the images of the deputies — seemingly unaware of the device up above — to a monitor on the ground in the Weber State parking lot.
“A very clear image, you can see that,” said McBride. “Just as long as they don’t pick their nose.”
In Garrett’s case, the sight of the drone when it found her and Burgin on their wayward hike last April gave her a great sense of relief. That was followed by the lamps and lights of the rescuers who made their way to the spot, clued in by the drone.
“The drone saved our lives,” said Garrett.
“We are totally sold on the drone,” said Burgin.