A King County Sheriff’s Office deputy hoists a mock victim to the safety of the department’s 1970 Huey helicopter. AARON KUNKLER/Bothell Reporter

King County Search and Rescue on the chopping block

A rhythmic thumping pulse reverberates through the trees, bouncing off the walls of the pristine valley where the Bandera State Airport sits, some 11 miles west of the Summit at Snoqualmie pass.

A rhythmic thumping pulse reverberates through the trees, bouncing off the walls of the pristine valley where the Bandera State Airport sits, some 11 miles west of the Summit at Snoqualmie pass.

As the treetops start to sway, a Huey helicopter comes into view, kicking up clouds of dust, sticks and leaves as it hovers above a clearing on the sun-drenched banks of the South Fork Snoqualmie River.

Below it sits a handful of medics who have just finished placing a splint on an injured man’s leg.

He looks skyward as another medic is lowered down from the helicopter, followed by a King County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO) deputy.

In just a few minutes, the injured man and the two-member rescue crew have been hoisted back to the safety helicopter and it once again disappears over the trees.

If this had been a real rescue, the victim would be flown to a waiting ambulance or hospital, but on this recent afternoon, the sheriff’s search and rescue division was just practicing for the real thing.

The search and rescue department has two small helicopters and one larger 1970 Huey, with another Huey on the way. The team is made up of four pilots and a two crews of deputies and medics which is based out of Renton Municipal Airport.

The Huey, named Gaurdian II, is equipped with a 250-foot hoist cable that can pull up to 600 pounds, and has the ability to attach a 100-foot cable underneath for faster rescues.

Sgt. Jason Houck is part of the rescue team and said helicopters provide a valuable way to reach injured people.

“Usually, if we’re coming in to get them, they’re not able to walk,” he said. “If we can go up and get them in 15 to 20 minutes rather than an eight hour packout, it saves everybody time.”

Last year the Huey plucked 25 people and three bodies from the wilderness, but in 2017, that number could drop to zero following a proposed $3.8 million KCSO budget cut stemming from a $50 million deficit county-wide during the next two years.

Houck said the helicopter search and rescue division costs around $500,000 annually for gas and maintenance.

The helicopter crews try to train bi-monthly for around four hours each session to stay sharp since the margin of error during rescues is so small, Houck said.

“There’s a lot of times where we’re in a hover, and the tops of the trees are above us,” he said. “It’s absolutely a huge trust.”

The KCSO marine rescue division could also be on the chopping block in 2017.

Glenn Wallace, President of of the King County Search and Rescue Association, a volunteer organization which coordinates emergency response between various private and government agencies, said losing air rescue would be a significant blow to their operations.

“There’s a lot of people, a lot of rugged territory and the helicopters are really an essential service,” he said.

KCSO operates the only county-owned rescue helicopters, Wallace said.

If they were to be cut, he said, the helicopters would have to be called in from Snohomish County, followed by Navy and Coast Guard choppers flying from Whidbey Island.

But all of these options add time to an emergency response, Wallace said, which could prove to be fatal for people injured in the woods.

KCSO helicopters also respond to rescues in neighboring counties through mutual aid agreements. Recently, the team assisted a rescue effort in Skagit County.

“If you take out a major resource like ours, it’s going to affect more than just King County,” Wallace said. “Everyone benefits from all of the helicopters.”

Wallace said the major costs for the program include maintenance, pay for the deputies and fuel since the lion’s share of purchase costs for the helicopters was covered by the federal government.

In the 2009 budgets, the idea of cutting air search and rescue was floated but ultimately failed. This time, Wallace said, the department could be choosing between patrol officers and air and marine rescue operations.

County agencies will continue to work on their budgets and no cuts have been finalized.

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