- Associated Press - Saturday, September 19, 2015

LOGAN CANYON, Utah (AP) - Dallin Briggs latched a carabiner attached to his waist onto a rope anchored above and began his solo descent.

A few steps in, his foot jarred loose a fist-sized rock that tumbled into the chasm below, prompting a sharp cry of “rock!” from the observers standing nearby - a warning to those who were already inside.

The stone disappeared into the darkness and landed on the unseen floor with a harmless thud.

Moments later, Briggs vanished into that same darkness, the small but bright beacon of his headlamp providing the only indication of his presence some 35 feet below the surface. Soon thereafter, that light also disappeared as he made his way toward the back of the cave and the man who lay there awaiting rescue.

After about 20 minutes, Briggs and others reemerged carrying a man with a heavily bandaged leg. Using a simple but elegant pulley system of ropes that had been rigged beforehand, crews on the ends of the ropes hoisted the men back to the surface and safety.

Fortunately on this day, the “injured” man was a mock patient, and this was only a training exercise. But it’s precisely this type of training that prepares dozens of rescue personnel for the moment when a real emergency inevitably occurs.

Briggs is one of about 40 volunteers who donate their time, effort and considerable skill toward making Cache County’s Search and Rescue team a unit that has garnered praise and admiration not just from similar agencies statewide, but from around the nation, said Sgt. Paul Todd, a veteran of the Sheriff’s Department and commander of the team.

“Everybody knows about Cache,” Todd said. “Our guys go all over the country and give classes on how it’s done.”

Anyone who has had an accident and found him or herself incapacitated or gravely endangered while enjoying a favorite outdoor activity in the valley area can appreciate the time and effort that search and rescue volunteers donate.

Cave rescue is just one of a multitude of scenarios the volunteers practice. One day, they might be out on the water trying to save someone from drowning. The next day, they could be looking for a lost child in the forest, digging through snowdrifts in search of avalanche victims, or helping an injured climber off the side of a cliff.

It’s this variety of potential emergency situations that requires a wide knowledge base and skill set among the volunteer force, and that’s something that Todd said the Cache County group as a whole possesses in spades.

“All of our guys know a little or a lot about something,” he said. “For every situation, we have someone who has been there before. The wide range of their abilities is so impressive, I can’t say enough about it.”

The volunteers come from a variety of backgrounds, but most are united in their love of the outdoors. Many spend their free time engaging in the same adventurous and inherently risky activities that bring about the need for search and rescue teams, so they already have the necessary equipment.

“We have a budget, but we really rely on them to provide a lot of their own equipment,” Todd said. “If they lose some gear or break something during a training exercise or a rescue mission, we will replace it.”

Regular training runs like a recent outing to a cave in the Peter Sinks area of Logan Canyon help keep the volunteers on their toes for when the real call comes.

“We have to make sure we stay on top of things,” said Tanner Newey, who joined the volunteer group about six months ago. He said volunteers have regular meetings, and go on training runs roughly three times per month.

That’s in addition to the time spent on their regular jobs and in their family lives.

“We have about 40 guys, and every time we get a call, about 15 to 30 of them come out on a moment’s notice,” Todd said. “They’ll drop just about anything they’re doing to help out.”

For every scenario, there’s an expert who often becomes the nucleus of a rescue effort. In the case of a cave rescue, that man is Dave Liddell, a USU geology professor and search and rescue veteran with vast experience in the subterranean chambers of the Bear River Range.

“What do we need to be aware of?” Liddell asked the group of about 20 volunteers before heading out on a recent cave rescue training run. “First, there’s a hole. Second, there’s falling rocks. Third, it’s cold.”

Even in the midsummer heat, caves in the area generally maintain a year-round temperature of about 36 degrees, so the primary concern in most cave rescue situations is hypothermia, Liddell said.

In cave rescues, he said it’s standard practice for rescuers to go in alone, one at a time because it’s faster, and because rescuers are often working in tight spaces.

While the cave used for this recent training exercise is relatively short and shallow, Liddell said other caves in the area can extend hundreds of feet underground, and sometimes it can take hours for rescuers to reach a patient.

“Even if a patient isn’t injured too badly, time is of the essence because it’s cold in there,” he said.

So when the local search and rescue team needs a caving expert, they call Liddell. If it’s an avalanche, there are snow experts available. If someone is lost, those with expert hunting and tracking skills may be called upon.

Having team members with specific skills helps make Cache County Search and Rescue the effective unit that it is. But the most important quality in a search and rescue volunteer, Todd said, is the ability and willingness to help without necessarily expecting anything in return.

“We’ll take anyone who is healthy and eager to learn,” he said. “All these guys are doing this for fun. I’ve found these volunteers are more dedicated than a paid employee.”

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Information from: The Herald Journal, http://www.hjnews.com

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