After Rob Chambers hit a patch of black ice, rolled his pickup just west of the Dry Creek overpass and was pinned inside the cab, Mineral County Search and Rescue successfully cut him out, the ambulance transported him to Mineral Community Hospital, and Life Flight flew him to Missoula where he was successfully operated on for a broken neck.
Another success story for Mineral County Search and Rescue, right?
Not exactly, according to Rob’s mother, Hyrel Walsh.
The Jaws of Life, a device meant to quickly extricate victims from automobiles, didn’t work because it was out of gas, she said.
A second tool, a power saw, also failed when the inverter on the ambulance would not supply power to it.
Rob was pinned inside the vehicle for over an hour while volunteers used a small hand tool to cut him free, she said.
“They cut him out with a little tiny hacksaw,” she said. “If he had been bleeding, or if the pickup had caught fire, there would have been no way in the world he would have made it. It was a sad thing. The guys themselves were trying very hard, but they don’t take care of their equipment.”
Rob’s parents Bertie and Hyrel Walsh were at the scene, thanks to a good Samaritan from Seattle who saw the accident, stopped, called for the emergency services, and then called Rob’s folks
Hyrel praised the efforts of the EMT who labored with the tiny hacksaw for over an hour. But she also called for Search and Rescue to be more diligent in its equipment checks.
“They were totally unprepared,” she said. “The Jaws of Life was totally out of gas. After an accident, they should never leave their equipment until it’s all in working condition, full of gas.”
Search and Rescue volunteers regularly conduct equipment checks, said Mike Byrnes, a volunteer with the organization. The problem occurred because the ‘Jaws’ was recently in Missoula for hydraulics repair. The usual routine is to check the equipment immediately after a call, and for whatever reason, the equipment was not re-checked when it came back from repair, he said.
He called the incident regrettable and frustrating.
“It’s a regrettable situation,” he said. “Instead of casting blame, I think we should pull together and do something to enhance and support Search and Rescue.”
The all-volunteer organization does not receive regular funding from the county. It is supported only by donations, he said. “Heck, the last couple of times we haven’t even got reimbursed from the Forest Service,” he said. “We helped do fire control and roadblocks on the Prospect Fire, and they’re just not paying us.”
It’s frustrating because the organization is expected to respond to the many calls year-round, yet it receives no funding from the county, he said.
“Up until three years ago we paid our own insurance because the county wouldn’t pay it for us. I mean, come on,” he said. “We’re expected to be an emergency response and then the county doesn’t fund us at all.” The volunteers could use a real rescue truck, instead of throwing their equipment into the back of a Blazer, he said.
“That would be the ideal thing. But we don’t even have a home for Search and Rescue. None of our equipment is stored inside—a bunch of it is parked out here at my shop.”
The commissioners have promised a piece of ground at the east end of the airport, but the organization has no money to put up a building. The volunteers get by with “whatever they can scrounge,” he said. “We’re going to have to sit down and talk about it at our next meeting,” he said. “I hate to ask the voters for money, after they just passed the hospital levy. The taxpayers are strapped as it is. But it’s needed.”
The commissioners could also pay for the organization out of Title 3 funds, he said, but for some reason they have seemed reluctant to do so. Search and Rescue organizations are cited as an example of the types of organizations that can receive Title 3 monies, he pointed out.
Another issue is that Mineral County dispatchers do not follow the protocols and dispatch the Search and Rescue crews as frequently as they are supposed to, he noted.
If they were dispatched more frequently and routinely, crews would perform more frequent equipment checks, he pointed out.