Save Search and Rescue, police from unnecessary searches
April 30, 2014
Steamboat Springs — With the arrival of May, more and more people of varying skill levels will begin to think about floating the town stretch of the Yampa River and inevitably some of them will capsize and become separated from their watercraft, whether it's a whitewater kayak, raft or an inflatable tube.
But it's what happens next that is on the minds of the members of Routt County Search and Rescue members.
Search and Rescue member Rory Clow recalls in great detail the circumstances of a search on the Yampa she joined in May 2013 after a bystander spotted an open canoe, traveling alone down the river, partially filled with water. The concerned individual who spotted the wayward boat reported it, kicking off a search that lasted for hours before the owner of the canoe was found on dry land.
"Reports of abandoned boats are difficult for search teams," Clow wrote about her recollections of that day. "The flip could have occurred just upriver from the reported sighting, many miles upriver, or in an adjoining creek that flows into the main river. The person may be safe on the shore and grinning from the experience, or still swimming in the dangerously cold water.
"In spring run-off, when the water temperatures drop to lower than 40 degrees, cold water carries heat away from the body 25 times faster than the air and it takes only minutes to lose dexterity of your limbs and less than 15 minutes to lose consciousness."
The search Clow was involved in last spring stretched into the first hour of darkness before it was called off. She and her skilled colleagues, who were searching from the water in a raft, had pulled two orange personal flotation devices from branches overhanging the river. They also retrieved a swamped river bag containing a wallet and a cellphone, so they had a strong sense of who they were looking for.
The missing boater finally was located when a deputy canvassing Yampa Street restaurants overheard him describing his experience to companions.
Steamboat has experienced more than one notable tragedy and some near tragedies in the last few spring runoff seasons, and that demands Search and Rescue and local law enforcement agencies be prepared to execute a high-pressure search on a minute's notice. However, there also have been a number of searches in recent seasons that could have been avoided, and it's the up-ended floaters who are in a position to call off the search before it begins.
"A time-consuming search by Routt County Search and Rescue can be easily avoided with a phone call," the organization's President Chad Bowdre said. "If your boat, raft, canoe or tube gets away from you, and bystanders report seeing it alone, Search and Rescue will be called out to check that no one is still in the water."
Unnecessary searches could be avoided if the people who lose their watercraft place a call to emergency officials to describe their boat or tube and let them know that they are already out of the river and safe. They can do that by calling 970-879-1090 to reach Routt County Communications, which dispatches police, fire, ambulance and Search and Rescue here.
That's also the number to be used when bystanders spy a stray tube or boat. Routt County Communications Director Doug Brown said only when people walking or floating along the river actually see someone struggling in the water should they dial 911.
"There are definitely protocols already in place for when that happens," Brown said. "If it's just a boat or canoe, and you don't see a body or a person that's in dire need of help, that's a 1090 call."
When there is a person in sight who is clearly in trouble, dial 911, Brown said.
Clow said the man who fell out of his canoe on the Yampa in May 2013 was good enough to come by Search and Rescue headquarters and thank them for their efforts on his behalf. But it was a search that didn't have to happen.
"He was waterlogged and embarrassed, but we were just relieved to find him safe," she wrote. "The search would have been easily avoided if he had made one simple phone call."