Search and rescue in rural Moffat County reaches new heights |

Search and rescue in rural Moffat County reaches new heights

Erin Fenner
Classic Lifeguard Air Medical Service met with Craig Search and Rescue, Moffat County Sheriffs, and Moffat County Emergency Management on May 14 to explain how the air service helps with search and rescue efforts in Northwest Colorado. Moffat County Sheriff Deputy Gary Nichols, left, Jaxson Atkins, Classic Lifeguard President Tony Henderson, Moffat County Sheriff Deputy Todd Wheeler, Classic Lifeguard Vice President Jason Atkins, Pilot Gerry Matheny, Flight Nurse Anne Harris, Search and Rescue Captain Berry Barnes, Classic Lifeguard Dan Harris, Search and Rescue team member Wes Musgrave, Search and Rescue team member Mike Toovey, Erick Schmidt, Moffat County Emergency Management Coordinator Tom Soos and Moffat County Sheriff Deputy Courtland Folks stand in front of the Classic Lifeguard helicopter.
Noelle Leavitt Riley

In all kinds of weather, any time of day, at any point in the year and across the 4,700-square-mile expanse of Moffat County, Search and Rescue responds to help stranded people.

“We have a lot of backcountry, a lot of desolate, isolated country that may not be very rugged, but if something happens, you are not next door to somebody like in a city,” Moffat County Sheriff Tim Jantz said.

Originally, Moffat County Search and Rescue was called the Sheriff’s Posse, and they were armed. But that changed in 2005 so the team could take on a more specialized role and focus on rescuing instead of being general aid to the sheriff’s office.

“Every sheriff is responsible for basically search and rescue operations in their county,” Jantz said. “How (the search and rescue team) came about was that a lot of sheriffs offices don’t have a lot of personnel. I can’t just pick someone from the community who doesn’t have the training.”

Beginning on Sunday, the sheriff’s department will lead a four-day-long whitewater trip to train officers and volunteers how to handle whitewater rescues.

People get stranded in the county for a multitude of reasons, and search and rescue needs to be ready to respond.

“We had a couple down in the Brown’s Park area (in April 2009). They went down for a Sunday drive. No big deal. They got stuck, and they decided to leave the vehicle,” said Barry Barnes, captain of Moffat County Search and Rescue.

Then the couple took a walk toward Zenobia Peak. It looked close from their vantage point, but it was miles away, and they got stuck far from the road in the dark.

We “did a triangular hit on their cellphones to determine they were on the south side,” Barnes said. “We finally found the vehicle. Myself and another young guy found their tracks.”

They followed those tracks to the couple who, frightened and relieved, followed the search and rescue team back to the road and got home safe and sound.

While the rescue didn’t involve the technical skills of scaling cliffs, pulling people out of whitewater or seeking someone after an avalanche, it still required a coordinated effort and smart volunteers eager to help.

“A lot of (volunteers) just want to help. This community is awesome for support,” Barnes said. “You don’t have to be an expert outdoorsman. You have to have the desire to help people.”

To further help, the county now has Classic Lifeguard Air Medical Service, which opened an office in Steamboat in March, and a helicopter now can be dispatched to help Search and Rescue with difficult rescue operations.

It also allows medical professionals to swiftly transport patients to nearby hospitals in much less time than an ambulance.

“We try to get response to those who need aid in a timely matter,” said helicopter pilot Gerry Matheny, who flew the aircraft to Moffat County Safety Center on May 14 to educate law enforcement and search and rescue members about how the company can help in dire situations.

Classic Aviation, which owns and operates Classic Lifeguard, has been in business for 30 years, and offers individual memberships to residents with health insurance for $60. That means, if you’re at home and have a heart attack and need to be flown to a hospital, a Classic Lifeguard member will fly to pick you up.

“We’re glad to be here — we love this area,” Classic Aviation Vice President Jason Atkins said. “We love search and rescue.”

The search and rescue team in Moffat County consists of about 25 county residents who undergo training monthly. It responds to about seven rescue calls per year, Barnes said.

The calls vary and demand a crew of diverse and high-skilled outdoorsmen. They train for rescues in whitewater, avalanches, mountainsides and any other possibility they can prepare for.

Barnes laughed when he talked about what it means to be on call 24/7 all year.

“The calls usually hit you at the wrong time: during the Super Bowl or Thanksgiving,” he said. Yet, “It has its rewards.”

But, having Classic Lifeguard in service in Moffat County will be a game-changer, said Tom Soos, emergency management coordinator for Moffat County. It means a helicopter will only ever be about 15 minutes away. According to the county emergency plan, the first hour of service always will be free to the county.

“At the end of the day, it’s a resource nearby to help search and rescue,” Soos said.

Contact Erin Fenner at 970-875-1794 or Noelle Leavitt Riley contributed to this report.

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