ST. GEORGE, Utah (ABC4 News) — With more than 90 days left in 2020, the Washington County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue has already broken its record for the number of calls for rescues in a given year.
Sgt. Darrell Cashin, liaison of the county’s search and rescue, said the most recent record was set in 2018 with 132 calls. As of Monday afternoon, crews have responded to 135 rescues.
“At the rate we’re going, we’re going to be in the 160 range for rescues,” Cashin said. “I’m concerned when we start pushing 180’s or 200’s. When you’re calling your volunteers that much, it’s becoming a job that they’re not being paid for.”
In a normal year, when temperatures push 105 or 110 degrees, calls for rescues tend to decrease significantly. This year, that didn’t happen. In fact, based on current figures, search and rescue teams are receiving a call-out every 2.03 days on average, according to Cashin.
The sheriff’s office is currently weighing all possible options to pay its 71 volunteers, which would potentially be implemented in the next year. Alternatives include call-out pays to employing their volunteers part-time or giving them bonuses.
Volunteers are not only out on rescues but spending time preparing for rescues, training, and maintaining equipment. Typically, rescue teams are working somewhere between 7000 to 8000 man-hours each year. In that sense, Cashin said his volunteers are saving the taxpayers between $600,000 to $1 million per year in wages and benefits alone.
Looking at the data through Jan. 1 to June, approximately 60% of the individuals needing to be rescued are not from Washington County. Last month, that percentage increased to 67%.
“Given that more than 60% of the people being rescued are tourists, maybe we can find another revenue source that way to help with our search and rescue costs,” Cashin said.
The outdoor and tourism trends for 2020 remain incredibly high, according to county officials, who say the COVID-19 pandemic has played a major role. Tourists particularly from California and Nevada, with greater restrictions and shut-downs compared to Utah, have continued to flood into Washington County. Authorities noted that some visitors are even staying for weeks or months at a time.
“Now, we’re heading into a prime season as the temperatures start to cool,” Cashin said. “From now until Thanksgiving, we’re expecting the call volume to stay where it’s at.”
Typically, calls for rescues in Washington County decrease into December, but the calls come back in full force in January.
Rescuers ask that members of the public communicate exactly where they plan to go and when they expect to be back and leave the house prepared. One of the biggest draws for rescues in 2020 has been hikers running out of water. Authorities added that some tourists don’t understand how drastically the temperatures change from day to night around this time of year in the desert.
“We are hitting a time of year in southwestern Utah when the temperatures are nice and warm during the day but are very cool as soon as the sun goes down,” Cashin said. “Take a headlamp and light jacket in a backpack with your extra water and granola bars, so you can be okay until we can get to you.”