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Saved by Alaskans

Volunteers not only help save lives, they save money for the state


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A Coast Guard Air Station Kodiak, Alaska, MH-60 Jayhawk helicopter crew transfers a patient to an ambulance in Kodiak, Alaska. The patient was medevaced from the fishing vessel Providence in Lazy Bay on the southern point of Kodiak Island.

Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Lauren Steenson


Every year, hundreds of people—visitors and Alaskans alike—get lost or injured in the backcountry. Fortunately, thousands of highly trained search and rescue volunteers are ready and waiting to risk their lives to help save others.

In a state the size of Alaska, landscapes are bigger and grander and emergency search and rescue resources are stretched thin. Between budget cuts, population size, and the sheer amount of territory in the Last Frontier, federal, state, and local agencies must work together and pool resources in order to respond to the hundreds of search and rescue calls that come in each year. Volunteer search and rescue groups also play a vital role in these missions. Effective collaboration is key to saving lives, and it has another benefit: it helps save money.


US Army Alaska Aviation Task Force in conjunction with the Alaska State Troopers and Wilderness Search and Rescue conduct a training medical evacuation to test the agencies’ cooperation and reaction time in case of an emergency situation within the Interior of Alaska.

Photo by Staff Sgt. Sean Callahan


Search and Rescue by Season

By June of this year, Alaska State Troopers (AST) had already conducted 141 search and rescue missions. And that was before they hit the busy season.

As with most operations and activities in Alaska, search and rescue work varies based on the season. During the summer many rescues involve day hikers, says Lieutenant Steve Adams, former search and rescue coordinator for AST. “Every summer a large number of tourists in the Anchorage basin take off on a day hike just outside of town and need medical evacuation, typically due to a lower extremity injury. People underestimate the amount of time, effort, or equipment needed.”

Boating accidents are also common this time of year, adding to the year-round danger of hypothermia. Alaska’s cold and unpredictable waters pose serious drowning danger to eager boaters who are faced with overturned boats and those that lose power in the middle of nowhere, leaving them alone, bobbing in the waves, awaiting help.

Summer may be busy, but when fall hits and hunting season begins, rescuers are faced with the particularly difficult challenge of locating lost hunters, says Adams. One overdue hunter can easily trigger an extended rescue mission. “It may take days, if we find them at all,” Adams says. “If they didn’t tell their buddies exactly where they’re going, the search ends up covering a large area. And hunters wear camouflage, so they’re very hard to see.”

Hunting season also sees a large number of plane crashes, often due to distracted driving, so to speak: people are looking for animals when they should be focused on flying. This is when mishaps such as slow-speed stalls happen.

The Civil Air Patrol (CAP) Alaska Wing participates in searches for overdue hunters, as well. “Sometimes their aircraft had a rough landing and set off its distress beacons, and sometimes a person is in need of aid,” says Major Stephen Sammons, CAP Alaska Wing Emergency Services Officer. “Same with summer and peak snow seasons—as people are getting out in the back country there is a rise in search and rescue cases that corresponds with the increase in traffic.”

Sammons points out that unlike the Lower 48, people in Alaska depend on aviation for day-to-day activities, whether tourism or supply management to bush communities. “With aviation being such a cornerstone of Alaska’s daily life, CAP is there when that community needs support.”

Transportation in general, whether in air or on land, tends to be the cause of many search and rescue missions. This is at least partly due to Alaska’s limited road system. For example, Adams reports that 30 percent to 32 percent of search and rescue missions by Alaska State Troopers involve snow machines. That’s because snow machines are the primary mode of travel in the Interior during winter. People living in isolated villages often travel on a highway system made of frozen rivers to gain access to other villages and goods and services. “Spring or fall is the worst time to travel on these rivers—before they’re frozen solid and when they’re starting to thaw,” says Adams.

The slow season for AST search and rescue is between hunting season and snow machine season, says Adams. “From October 1st until mid-November we get a lull where things slow down, and then we get into early winter drownings.”

The US Coast Guard (USCG) also sees seasonal changes in search and rescue calls. “Like the Lower 48, busy season is normally the summer,” says USCG 17th District Search and Rescue Specialist Paul Webb. “But Alaska has a large maritime fishing industry that is a year-round operation. We stay steady through most of the year. Between October and the beginning of January is the slowest portion of the year.”

 

Sharing Responsibilities and Resources

Photo by Staff Sgt. John Gordinier

Technical Sgt. Cody Inman, a pararescueman with the 212th Rescue Squadron, Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Alaska, is hoisted into a HH60 Pave Hawk helicopter during Exercise Arctic Chinook.

There are four broad categories of search and rescue missions, each covered by a different agency: the Alaska Rescue Coordination Center handles aeronautical calls; USCG deals with maritime search and rescue; National Park Service is responsible for search and rescue missions on federal lands; and AST are the first line of response for land-based search and rescue outside national parks.

The divisions of responsibility have more to do with who is managing an incident and coordinating resources than who is executing the actual mission. In reality, everyone works together. This has a lot to do with the scarcity of available resources and the geographic proximity of assets or expertise to a particular incident.

For example, when other entities cannot reach a location, USCG gets involved with land-based emergencies. This may include helping lost hunters and hikers, medical evacuation of the injured, and transport of patients from remote clinics to hospitals and trauma centers that offer a higher level of care.

For non-medical incidents such as lost hunters or stranded tourists, USCG coordinates with AST. Other missions may involve local police and fire departments; the US Air Force; Alaska Air National Guard and Alaska Army Guard; the North Slope Borough Search and Rescue; and the many local volunteer search and rescue organizations around the state.

Although the National Park Service and AST are technically responsible for search and rescue on federal and state lands, respectively, they have an official Memorandum of Understanding and often work together. “Because the Park Service has resources available to respond to incidents, AST will often defer to us to complete a mission,” says Erika Jostad, National Park Service chief ranger at Denali National Park and Preserve. “Occasionally they’ll ask us to complete a mission just outside our boundaries. And when the parks don’t have the necessary resources to complete a rescue, we’ll ask AST to come into the park and help.”

Alaska search and rescue agencies are able to pool their resources, which helps overcome challenges that result from limited resource and budget constraints. AST, for example, is able to respond to hundreds of calls each year despite having only two helicopters dedicated to search and rescue. “We have lots of different assets available depending on the partner we have helping us at the time,” Adams says. “The Department of Public Safety has several aircraft, vessels, and snow machines. We also use assets from the US Coast Guard, the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center, CAP, and the local volunteer agencies.”

“The state is like a small town,” says Jostad. “None of us have enough resources where we can say things like, ‘Hey, that’s mine.’ So we work really well together.”

 

Volunteers: Saving Lives, Saving Money

Although AST have statute authority for land-based search and rescue, they don’t have the resources to conduct missions themselves. There simply aren’t enough troopers, and budget cuts have taken a toll on the state troopers.

“The most important challenge or constraint is funding,” says Adams. “We rely heavily on volunteer organizations that are basically self-funded through donations from the public. They have received some government funding in the past for training, but for the most part they don’t receive much government funding at all.”

Alaska Mountain Rescue Group (AMRG) is one of the volunteer organizations that perform technical search, rescue, and recovery missions under the direction of AST. Based in Anchorage, AMRG has eighty volunteer members who perform an average of thirty to forty missions annually. Missions range from searches for lost hunters, hikers, or children to high-angle rope rescue, avalanche response, and downed aircraft.

“One of the untold stories is that we’re more than likely saving the state of Alaska millions of dollars by being volunteers,” says AMRG Board Chairman Eric Huffman. “Considering the amount of technical expertise involved…it’s a three day examination from other certified organizations. When you think about the amount of money it would take to train troopers to be technical rescuers, avalanche specialists, search specialists... it’s a lot. And you can’t just train two of them.”

In total, AST works with fifty-seven different volunteer organizations statewide, representing about 1,100 volunteers. Although people sometimes mistakenly believe groups like AMRG receive state funding because they work under AST, Huffman points out that they actually rely completely on donations. There are some grants available to cover training costs, but, as Huffman points out, “we have to take time off work to attend the training, and we’re not paid for that.”

Each of the volunteer groups has its own schedule, but they all train year-round. Most volunteer organizations have at least one or two group meetings per month and one to four trainings per month. Most meetings last a couple of hours and training can last all day depending on the organization’s objectives.

Search and rescue volunteers point out that volunteering is more of a second, unpaid career than a hobby, and people who are involved in search and rescue take their jobs very seriously. Major Brian Emerson, public affairs officer for CAP Alaska Wing, put it this way: “Volunteers are critical. You can’t pay someone enough to put their life on the line. It has to be passion.”

That passion shows. Volunteers not only risk their lives to help save others but they also invest significant time and money in equipment and training to keep their skills up to date. Individuals can and do spend thousands of dollars on training and specialized search and rescue equipment each year.

A few years ago, AMRG lost one of their helicopters during a mission. Since this meant they could no longer fly at night, “we decided we needed to up our snow machine capabilities,” says Huffman. “We can’t rely on AST to provide helicopter support because they had budget cuts. So we spent $40,000 out of our own pockets to improve our response capabilities in winter.”

 

How Much Does a Mission Cost?

Photo by Airman 1st Class Jackie Sanders

An Alaska Air National Guard 212th Rescue Squadron pararescueman performs a high-altitude jump from a Coast Guard C-130 Hercules during a training mission at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.  

There’s no simple answer to “what does a search and rescue mission cost?” Costs are highly variable. According to Jostad, cost depends on the mission. “If we had a known patient in a known location that wasn’t too far from where the helicopter was parked, it might cost $2,000 to $3,000. But if someone is lost and we had to search for a week before finding them, and we’re trying to mobilize troops, thirty to forty people to go search for this person, it could cost $25,000.”

One thing that is consistent, though, is the cost of flight time. “Any time we launch an aircraft, that’s when things get expensive,” says Jostad.

Fortunately, volunteer organizations like the CAP Alaska Wing are available to help minimize some of these costs. When an emergency beacon is activated and the message reaches the search and rescue coordination center at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, the 11th Air Force has two options. They can deploy a Blackhawk helicopter, which costs $2,500 an hour, or they can send the CAP to search the area first, which costs $100 an hour.

Even though rescuers have coordinates, when a plane goes down in heavy trees or a valley it can be hard to find. From a taxpayer’s standpoint, it’s more cost effective to send out CAP assets to pinpoint the exact location of the downed aircraft before deploying a Blackhawk with para-rescue jumpers to airlift the victims.

In 2016, AST conducted a study to uncover the average cost of a mission. They calculated that the total cost of search and rescue for fiscal year 2015 was more than $1 million. Dividing that by the 432 search and rescue missions during this time period, they came up with an average cost of roughly $2,500. However, this number does not account for USCG, CAP, local fire departments, volunteer rescue groups, or any other entities that help with missions.

Although it’s hard to get definitive numbers, it’s easy to imagine that the real cost of search and rescue is much higher than $2,500. Flight time is hugely expensive. Of the estimated $1 million per year AST spends on search and rescue, at least half is for their two helicopters. The maintenance bill alone is $250,000 per helicopter, and that’s before they’re even fired up. Fuel and pilots are an additional expense.

 

Search and Rescue Relies on People

Photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Grant DeVuyst

The US Coast Guard District 17 Era Helicopters crew lowers a Priority 1 Air Rescue swimmer into the Arctic Ocean during a joint search and rescue exercise near Oliktok Point.

While aircraft, vessels, and snow machines are valuable tools, the most critical asset in search and rescue is people. “We do have aviation assets,” says Jostad, “but really it’s sending people on the ground to search that is the most important.”

Corey Aist, president of the Alaska Search and Rescue Association, says, “I’m amazed by the volunteers who leave their families and their work behind to assist. I’m always surprised by the quality of the actions they take, with no compensation. These people are not looking for rewards—they’re not looking for money, and they’re not even looking for recognition. We get a call from the troopers and people show up to help.”


This article first appeared in the August 2017 print edition of Alaska Business.

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