Training Exercises Keep Wyoming Search and Rescue Teams Ready For Action

It's been a very busy season for Wyoming's Search and Rescue teams. Here's how they train...

Wendy Corr

March 22, 20214 min read

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“Help! Help!”

Three men floated in the icy water of the Buffalo Bill Reservoir west of Cody.

One of them happened to be Park County Sheriff Scott Steward.

“I’m going under!”

Well, he wasn’t, really. Steward was a citizen volunteer victim for an inter-agency training exercise on Sheep Mountain coordinated by the Park County Search and Rescue team.

The wilderness and ice water rescue practice coordinated and hosted by SAR involved a host of area emergency service agencies. 

Because Park County covers almost 7,000 square miles – an area about the size of the entire state of Vermont – training sessions like these are important to test the skills and strengthen communication between emergency service providers.

That’s according to Lance Mathess, acting coordinator for the SAR.

“The more you train together the more you become familiar with each agency’s needs, their capabilities, and it can only result in a more positive outcome,” Mathess said.

The training involved two scenarios – one was a water rescue, in which three people fell through thin ice on Buffalo Bill Reservoir.

The second scenario involved a report of a victim of a bear mauling. This particular exercise also involved the Wyoming Game and Fish Department, which doesn’t normally get called out for search and rescue operations.

But Dan Smith, who is the Cody Regional Wildlife Supervisor for the Game and Fish Department, said such exercises are great training opportunities for members of his crew, who spend a significant amount of time in the backcountry as part of their jobs.  

“As we all work together, we’re just going to be better as a team,” Smith said. “We all have our individual skill sets… it’s just better for the person that we’re trying to help.”

According to the Wyoming Department of Homeland Security, Wyoming search and rescue personnel conduct an average of more than 300 missions annually across the state to provide assistance to those who become lost or stranded. 

And those missions don’t wait for weekends, or even come one at a time. 

Mathess recalled one September day in 2018 when his unit received three callouts in a six-hour period — a bear mauling, report of a lost woman near Crandall and an injured county commissioner in the backcountry.

Mathess said that in large part due to the rugged terrain that comprises much of the region, exercises like this here in Park County are important because of the wide range of incidents that could — and do — occur.

“I mean, we have swift water, we have deep water, we have high-angle rope rescues,” he said. “We have things like this, like bear maulings and patient evacuations in the backcountry; we have ice climbing, we have snowmobiles. We run the entire gamut of rescue operations, and we have capabilities to respond to all of those.”

Mathess said despite being volunteers, some of the team members are extensively trained in emergency medicine and other specialized rescue techniques and many are community instructors of various outdoor skills and safety programs.

For last week’s exercise, along with the Game and Fish Department and Park County Search and Rescue, personnel from Cody Regional Health, Shoshone National Forest, State Park Law Enforcement, Bureau of Land Management and even Big Horn County Search and Rescue were involved. 

Mathess said because of training sessions like these, crews will be ready when emergencies arise. 

“You can count on us at all times, and we’re there when you need us,” he said.

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Wendy Corr

Features Reporter