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Safety net: Nonprofit aims to bolster search and rescue ops

Kyle James, field team lead for Haywood Search and Rescue, carefully crosses a tributary of the West Fork Pigeon River. Nancy East photo Kyle James, field team lead for Haywood Search and Rescue, carefully crosses a tributary of the West Fork Pigeon River. Nancy East photo

It was the fall of 2019, and Bill Zimmerman had just hopped in a truck with other members of the Haywood County Wilderness Search and Rescue Team in response to one of the 21 deployments the crew handled that year. 

“Somebody goes, ‘We don’t even have a gas card. We don’t even have money to put into the truck to get up to the mountain,’” Zimmerman recalled. 

It was a crystallizing moment for Zimmerman, who had for some time been toying with the idea of starting up an organization dedicated to funding the SAR team. That day served as the catalyst that spurred him to action, and now Zimmerman is president of the newly formed nonprofit WNC Wilderness Safety Fund.

“More money is more training. More money is being able to replace equipment that we might have to go without because we weren’t able to afford it,” said SAR Captain Mike Street. “That’s the goal, is just being more efficient in our job.”

In 2019, the crew responded to 21 calls for help, with an average of 67 volunteer hours per call. Demand surged in 2020, with 31 deployments so far this year. Prior to 2019, annual rescues had generally sat closer to 35 — Street said improved signage at the Shining Rock Wilderness Area likely helped bring that figure down in 2019, with pandemic-related cabin fever boosting trail use, and therefore rescue calls, in 2020. 

“The biggest thing is how awesome these guys are,” said Haywood County Emergency Services Director Greg Shuping. “I can attest to their training and professionalism and the fact that this county absolutely just could not do without them. They have become even more so almost a regional resource.”

 

Starting in the dark

The all-volunteer SAR team is an indispensable resource to a region whose bread and butter is the millions of people who arrive each year to explore the seemingly limitless trails and views of Western North Carolina. While most of those adventures conclude without incident, every year there’s a subset that result in a call to 911. Crew members know the woods incredibly well, and sometimes they’re able to talk the caller back to familiar territory. Other times, the crew deploys to the backcountry. 

“Generally, when we get calls, they come in at 9, 10 o’clock at night,” said Zimmerman. “When it gets dark, people start getting worried.”

Crew members come prepared to spend the night in the backcountry if necessary, and many times those nights are anything but restful. 

That was certainly the case on Oct. 27, when the crew responded to one of its most complex calls this calendar year. Around 5 p.m. that evening, a local bear hunter radioed out a message that he had been injured in a fall above Sunburst Campground off of Lake Logan Road. Luckily, he was able to transmit his exact location. 

“We have a dot on a map that says he’s on the side of a hill way out in the wilderness,” said Zimmerman, who was one of the first to respond to the call. “Once we got out there it was obvious he had to be hauled out.”

Hauling him out would require rigging a series of four rope systems, calling for a helicopter evacuation, setting up a landing zone and, finally, watching the patient disappear into the blindingly bright, noisy wind of the Black Hawk helicopter. 

“All of a sudden it’s complete silence. There’s your team — at this point there’s 25 or 30 people out there — standing there in the dark, like ‘OK, we’re done. We’re going to be walking out,’” said Zimmerman. “It’s a weird feeling.”

By the time the crew was out of the woods with equipment checked back in, it was 7 in the morning.

Nobody on the SAR Team gets paid for their services, and in fact even joining the crew requires an impressive outlay of time and money. The basic training required of all team members totals 72 hours, with extra time required for more advanced and specialized skills. Members must also furnish their own gear. 

“I thought, ‘Hey, I like to hike. I wouldn’t mind helping out if somebody needed help,’ and joined the team,” said Zimmerman of his own decision to join about five years ago. “So, once I got it, I was like, ‘Whoa this is a lot more involved than I thought it was going to be,’ because it’s a heck of a lot of training.”

While most people interested in joining the team already have a good portion of the items required, buying everything on the list of required gear would likely end up costing around $1,000, said Zimmerman. In the case of the bear hunter rescue, some of that expensive personal gear wound up sacrificed to the cause. 

“They dropped down to pick up the patient, and so everything we’ve packaged the patient with is gone with the helicopter,” said Zimmerman. 

 

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Extensive training is required to safely rig rope for rescues like this one at, Whitewater Falls in Jackson County. Haywood SAR photo

 

Big plans

The Wilderness Safety Fund is still in its infancy, but Zimmerman hopes to see it mature into a stable organization with sufficient funding to provide gear, equipment and training not only to Haywood County Wilderness Search and Rescue but also for search and rescue teams regionwide. 

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Street. “It’s all volunteer. There’s not a paid search and rescue team in Western North Carolina.”

The goal for 2020 was to get the fund organized, set up and functioning. The organization marked that milestone back in September, when a man from Virginia who had been fishing Yellowstone Prong with his girlfriend got turned around and realized he wouldn’t be able to make it out on his own that night. The SAR team responded, saving him from spending an uncomfortable night outside in 30-degree weather. 

“I ended up giving him a card from our fund. I think it’s the first time we’ve done that,” said Zimmerman. “And he actually made a nice donation after he got back.”

Usually, the people that the SAR team ends up rescuing aren’t locals. They’re usually visitors, and 90 percent of the time they’re people who end up in over their heads in the Shining Rock Wilderness. 

There’s no charge for rescue services, but the fund provides an easy way for people who benefit from the team’s expertise to show their appreciation. Previously, there was no direct way to do that. People could donate to the Haywood County Rescue Squad, but because the SAR team is only a small subset of that organization, it wasn’t a very targeted way to direct the money. 

“Now we have this mechanism that we can say, this is who we are. Your money will go directly to help with these kind of services,” said Zimmerman. 

Eventually, Zimmerman hopes to see the fund grow enough to expand that roster of services by developing specialized squads within the SAR Team — swiftwater, drone and dive teams, for instance. 

“That gets more expensive, honestly,” he said. “Now I’m not talking about personal gear. I’m talking about rafts and dive tanks and drones.”

Not to mention the training. 

In addition to potential future training with boats and drones, Zimmerman also hopes to see the fund support larger training events with the teams from other jurisdictions with whom Haywood often finds itself cooperating in the field. The bear hunter rescue, for example, involved about 60 rescuers and responders representing 16 different agencies. The operation also involved a paramedic from Haywood EMS’s newly formed Special Ops Medics, a team that aims to provide professional paramedics who are trained for wilderness settings. 

“To see people for the first time in the field in an active rescue is not the best time,” said Zimmerman. “It’s better to have trained with them.”

Of course, he said, “the best rescue is the rescue you don’t have to do,” so another goal is to boost preventative search and rescue efforts. That could mean more signage and informational displays coaching people on how to be safe in the woods, as well as seminars and workshops teaching people key wilderness preparation and navigation skills. 

There are a lot of possibilities, and they all focus around one goal — helping people make good choices in the backcountry and boosting the odds that when something does go wrong, there will be a network of trained and equipped volunteers ready to save the day. 

 

 

Do your part

Haywood County has one of the most organized and highly trained volunteer search and rescue teams around. Here’s how you can help this crew continue to fulfill its lifesaving mission.

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