Routt County Search and Rescue makes most of smartphones

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— Routt County Search and Rescue’s never-ending mission to rescue adventurers from the backcountry surrounding Steamboat Springs has changed dramatically with the growing numbers of skiers, hikers and snowmobilers who carry smartphones.

However, Search and Rescue, a nonprofit organization, stills needs to raise $10,000 to $15,000 this year to continuously replace and upgrade its own equipment. And has always been the case, the volunteers at Search and Rescue never bill their clients for saving their bacon.

“We are free. We don’t charge under any circumstances,” Search and Rescue board president Chad Bowdre said Wednesday. “We have a fantastic city and county that help support us, but it does not make it to the bottom line for us.”

Search and Rescue launched an annual giving campaign this week with a postcard mailer featuring a picture of two riders on horseback in front of the historic More Barn. The riders are longtime former Search and Rescue board president Russ Sanford (still an incident commander and ropes team leader) and his wife, Trenia. She is the daughter of Jo Semotan, who posed for the original Steamboat barn poster in the 1960s.

The new photograph was taken by local photographer Rory B. Clow.

Even as Search and Rescue begins to recruit a new class of volunteers and raise funds this summer, it is seeing its membership relieved of some of the pressures of being volunteers who must leave home or work at any time for a urgent mission thanks to the ubiquitous smartphone.

“Our missions have changed in the last 10 years with GPS and cell phones,” Bowdre said. “We are being called out on fewer missions and our missions are faster in timeframe, because we’re getting calls” from concerned friends and loved ones about people who are overdue, “at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m. instead of 10 p.m.”

There are even times when Bowdre or one of his colleagues rescues someone remotely, just by talking them out of the wilderness. That ability exists thanks to Routt County Communications’ ability to monitor cell phone pings off towers and use triangulation to locate the position of the caller.

A Search and Rescue team member can, in turn, plot that location on a GPS device and see the lost party’s location relative to significant landmarks.

“I might get a call from some lost hunters who can’t find the trail,” Bowdre said. “I say, ‘OK, see that large mountain ahead of you? That’s Hahn’s Peak. Put that at your left shoulder and begin walking, then call me in 20 minutes.’ Sometimes they call back in 10 minutes and say they’ve hit the trail. I tell them to make a right turn.”

Rescue accomplished.

As recently as Dec. 17, 2012, a Search and Rescue team used cell phone location to reach a group of snowmobilers who had bogged down in deep snow on Buffalo Pass and were not prepared to spend the night. Although they were under-equipped, their cell phones helped rescuers come to their aid by 6:30 p.m. In another era, they might have spent a very uncomfortable night in the high country.

While 60 missions annually used to be the norm, 40 is more typical for Search and Rescue in recent years.

Bowdre said the organization’s annual fundraisers help them replace snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles every eight to 12 years. They also maintain a tech-enabled mobile command center they often use to help other agencies in neighboring counties.

Adults 21 and older who are interested in learning more about becoming a Search and Rescue volunteer should indicate their interest by July 22. They don’t need to be accomplished rock climbers or expert snowmobilers to play an important role, Bowdre said. They just need to have a schedule that is flexible enough to allow them to occasionally leave on a mission with minutes of notice.

Read about the next training program beginning in the fall at the organization’s website. And learn about recent missions and training sessions at the Search and Rescue Facebook page.

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205 or email tross@SteamboatToday.com

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