‘With beauty brings disaster:’ Local cop works gamut of ops
summit daily news
SUMMIT COUNTY – Mark Watson’s occupation could send him to the scene of a mountain plane crash, a deadly avalanche, a backwoods squatter camp or even a hostage situation at gunpoint.
The special operations technician with Summit County Sheriff’s Office, who also serves on the SWAT team, is involved with rescue operations of all sorts across the county.
“With beauty brings disaster,” Watson said of the nature of work in the scenic Summit High Country.
A woman crashed a snowmobile in a gully at Vail Pass last winter. She was there for about six or seven hours before rescuers arrived.
“She really should have been dead … It was a medical miracle that she lived,” Watson said. “Seeing what a human body can endure is incredible. You don’t want to give up on someone too early. (The) human body that has the will to live will live for a long time.”
He said it’s essential for people who find themselves in trouble in the backcountry to “always have that hope.”
Watson, 42, is from New Zealand. He came to Summit County as a Copper Mountain ski instructor in 1988 as part of an exchange program between New Zealand and the United States.
He continued to do so “off and on” at Copper and Breckenridge Ski Resort for about 12 seasons. Eventually Watson married an American woman and decided it was “time to settle down” and make more money.
Watson went to the Silverthorne Police Department when in his early 30s and applied for a job.
He thought he might be too old, for New Zealand has age and height restrictions on its officers. But he soon began with Silverthorne PD as a code enforcement officer.
Watson went to law enforcement academy and worked as a patrolman and a detective with Silverthorne before moving to the sheriff’s office about four years ago.
“It gives you an adrenaline rush,” he said of his current work with special operations.
Summit County Rescue Group depends mostly on volunteers who respond to a spectrum of backcountry incidents in all seasons.
“(They) give their time and effort to help someone in distress,” Watson said. “All we have to do is feed them pizza and juices and they’ll be out all night.”
Sometimes the situation calls for divers to conduct operations in Dillon or Green Mountain reservoirs. And for divers, the high elevation makes diving “a whole different game.”
Watson said Summit County is fortunate because, like the other rescuers, the divers are volunteers.
“Otherwise, the taxpayers are paying thousands of dollars,” he said. “There are only a couple of volunteer water rescue teams in the state.”
The summer is the most active time for rescuers.
“The winter I think used to be,” he said. “Summer has really brought a lot of Front Range people up here.”
He said that with 100 to 200 cars at Mount Quandary – described by many guidebooks as one of the easiest Fourteeners – on a weekend, many calls come in from people who get into trouble.
“They come not as well-equipped as for maybe other Fourteeners, or maybe their fitness level isn’t as high,” Watson said.
Asked of his goals, Watson said he wants to see that the county’s roughly 70 volunteer rescuers get a building of their own. The existing facility near the County Commons in Frisco is shared with the fire department’s training center.
“The county has been great in giving sheds and buildings to use,” he said. “Hopefully in the next 10 years (SCRG will have) their own proper training, facility and storage area-type building. That would be a big goal of mine to see.”
Watson said it’s hard on equipment when it sits outside during the winter, as happens with the existing facilities.
The nature of Watson’s work can involve response to a scene in the backcountry that appears to be search and rescue but turns to SWAT.
“Safety’s number one on anything,” he said. “We’re not going to put our guys in to the point we’re jeopardizing safety.”
Watson said that in the wilderness, it must be assumed everyone has weapons.
The SWAT team trains 15 hours per month, and Watson is part of the team that enters a building first on a call.
“We’ve been very lucky,” he said, referring to violent SWAT-type incidents that have occurred in Park and Grand counties, while Summit has been relatively peaceful.
A major difference between cops in the United States and New Zealand is that the latter don’t carry firearms.
Watson did a ride-along with some New Zealand officers on a recent trip to his homeland, and they responded to a domestic violence call with only stab-resistant vests for protection.
“They put themselves at risk a lot, and a lot of them get injured,” he said, adding that their cars don’t have cages in the back to contain people who’ve been arrested.
He said they have one patrol vehicle for emergency response that includes a firearm in a lockbox.
New Zealand officers work for the national government, unlike in the United States where police and sheriffs’ departments are part of local governments.
Watson said the local departments are “really great” because of their connection with the communities they serve.
“It’s a very exciting job – something I dearly love and enjoy, and I feel very privileged and lucky,” he said.
Watson lives in Silverthorne with his wife and three children.
Robert Allen can be contacted at (970) 668-4628 or
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