Hoping to make more funding available to strained search and rescue teams throughout the state, the Utah Legislature passed into law last month the Utah Search and Rescue Assistance Card (USARAC) program. The cards — which will be available for purchase in June — will exempt the cardholder from being billed for the cost of rescue efforts in the event they require the help of a search and rescue team.
Brad Peterson, director of the Utah Office of Outdoor Recreation, says USARAC — which is based on a similar program in Colorado — will raise funds that will be used to reimburse search and rescue organizations throughout the state while also acting as a kind of insurance for the cardholder.
“It was apparent that while increased tourism brings economic growth it also comes with an increased burden on the search and rescue teams,” Peterson said. “Today, both locals and tourists are equally at risk of being rescued and are equally draining the existing fund.”
Grand County Search and Rescue (GCSAR) Commander Jim Webster said the program helps both the organization and the individual cardholder.
“This card is a way to help yourself out while also supporting the search and rescue function in the state of Utah across its various counties,” Webster said. “In Colorado, it’s been very successful and helps pay for a lot of those costs. It also takes the onus off the person who has the card.”
Currently, only two counties in Utah attempt to bill for Search and Rescue services — Wayne County — which is home to Capitol Reef National Park and a portion of Canyonlands National Park — and Grand County.
Depending on the type of incident, Grand County can bill individuals for expenses ranging from $250 to $750 dollars, according to the county’s consolidated fee schedule.
But Webster said that as an understood rule, they do not bill local residents or for incidents involving fatalities.
Grand County Sheriff Steve White, whose office oversees search and rescue operations, estimated that of the incidents the county does attempt to bill, Grand sees a return of less than 40 percent.
Rep. Sophia DiCaro, who sponsored the bill in the House, said Grand County is incurring significant costs from visitors outside the area.
“What happens is search and rescue ends up rescuing people often not from Utah — either international visitors or people from neighboring states,” DiCaro said. “So they’re incurring a lot of these costs. Grand County only recoups about 40 percent of the costs they incur.”
Peterson said billing for rescue services is also time-consuming for local law enforcement agencies, whose energies could be spent elsewhere.
“Back-charging is time consuming and not a priority for the county sheriffs,” Peterson said. “Our collective intent is that the revenue from this card will facilitate Sheriff White getting out of the back-charging business.”
“[USARAC] is going to be great,” he said. “We’re getting into another revenue source we haven’t gotten into yet and it gets us out of the billing business.”
The state collects fees from hunters and anglers — 25 cents for every hunting and fishing license and 50 cents for every ATV/OHV and boat registration — that are later distributed to local search and rescue programs in Utah.
Not only are these funding sources not adequately contributing to the increasing expenses of Utah Search and Rescue, Rep. DiCaro argues that they are also not reflective of the groups who most often use search and rescue services.
“The [current] funding sources are from anglers, hunters and boaters. But most people are actually hikers and bikers who are being rescued,” DiCaro said. “It doesn’t make sense to increase fees on hunters. So this is a creative way to tie fees to actual users who are driving the costs.”
She said licensed anglers and hunters and registered boaters and OHV users will receive discounts for purchasing the card.
Not only can local residents and out-of-state visitors buy the card, but international tourists as well. Peterson also plans to market USARAC in German and French.
Although the details are currently in flux, Peterson anticipates annual passes will cost $25 for an individual and $35 for a family, pending on final approval from an advisory board.
Individuals can purchase the USARAC card online at Rescue.Utah.Gov. Peterson said the website is expected to be up and running June 1.
GCSAR adds new jet boat
While Webster says USARAC will help build statewide Search and Rescue funds, he noted that GCSAR will hold its annual “sticker sale” — which directly supports the local team — this spring.
Part of the funds raised through the sales of stickers have facilitated the recent purchase of the SJX 2170 jet boat, which Webster said will help the GCSAR volunteers during search and rescue efforts that involve low-water conditions.
“One of the deficits in search and rescue for years has been the ability to move in low-water conditions safely, quickly and successfully,” Webster said. “We have calls where we need to operate in these low-water conditions. There’s a shallow gravel bar in Negro Bill Canyon that we often can’t get over in our rescue boats. Also, downriver from Moab there are many sandbars which we need to get over.”
While Grand County will pay $10,000 toward the boat, the rest of the $44,000 cost comes entirely from search and rescue donation money, Webster said.
“With a boat like this, we should get to the Green River and Labyrinth Canyon quickly from the confluence,” he said. “It should open up a lot of opportunity.”
Calling 2014 a “record year” for search and rescue calls, Webster said that as of mid-April, calls to GCSAR are already up from the same time in 2014.
“Last year was our biggest year ever,” said Webster. “This year we’re ahead of that pace. I don’t know if this means anything, but as of a few days ago we had 24 [incidents]. Last year at the same time we had 18 — we’re five ahead of that pace.”
Webster emphasized the importance of always packing basic survival gear, including enough water for the conditions of the day, as well as a fire-starter, headlamp, windbreaker or other layers of clothing when recreating.
When going out alone — even for a 15-minute hike —it’s “crucial” for recreationists to tell someone else where they are going, where they will park, and when they plan to return, he said.
“We just had another search the other day for a young man who rode his motorcycle to Bar M for a 15-minute ride and never showed up,” Webster said. “This young man took off and didn’t have his cell phone with him, didn’t have any water or food. No extra clothes. If you’re going to go out — even for 15 minutes, tell someone where you’re going and when you’re going to get back.”
GCSAR currently has 28 members and trainees, and Webster said more volunteers are encouraged to apply. For more information about GCSAR, visit the website: gcsar.org.
ByBy Molly Marcello