legislation creating a sustainable search and rescue system in Colorado


Jordan White, the head of Mountain Rescue Aspen, sent 17 of his rescuers. The Aspen Highlands Ski Patrol sent another 20 patrollers. They called a Colorado National Guard helicopter also.

Rescuers, working in treacherous snow conditions on Thursday in March, spent more than 10 hours installing a rope system to hoist the 23-year-old snowboarder from Chicago off the edge of treacherous cliffs outside the boundaries of the ski area .

They finished around 11 p.m. as temperatures dropped into the single digits.

“If he hadn’t had cell phone service, I’m not sure it would have worked for him,” White said. “You can credit Ski Patrol, Mountain Rescue Aspen and the Sheriff’s Office for the arrest that night. Without help, this guy wouldn’t have made it back up the hill.

This story first appeared in The Outsider, Jason Blevins’ premium outdoor newsletter. Become a Newsletters+ member to get The Outsider on coloradosun.com/join. (Current members, click here to learn how to upgrade)

There are more than 50 search and rescue teams with 2,800 volunteer rescuers in Colorado and most have seen a dramatic increase in calls for help – more than 3,600 a year – over the past two years. Last year, Colorado lawmakers funded a working group to study how the state can better support volunteers who give 200 to 400 hours a year for rescue and training missions.

New legislation based on recommendations from this task force will move Colorado search and rescue operations from the Department of Local Affairs to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Senate Bill 168 will also transfer the state search and rescue fund to the CPW, immunize rescuers from civil lawsuits, and provide disability benefits to rescuers injured during a mission. The bill passed the state Senate Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources last week with a unanimous vote.

“It’s a step in the process. We are laying the foundation for a sustainable search and rescue system in Colorado,” said Jeff Sparhawk, executive director of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, which represents state teams that operate under the direction of sheriffs in the county. “We’re still negotiating what that looks like, but once we have that system in place, we’ll have support for the teams and our professional volunteers.”

Ideally, volunteer rescuers will soon have workers’ compensation insurance, to protect them if they are injured while on duty or training. They’ll have better funding, so maybe they won’t have to pay for gas or equipment when venturing into the backcountry to rescue lost or injured travellers. Perhaps there will be a fund that could help teams upgrade their equipment to keep pace with the fastest, lightest and most expensive equipment being used by a growing number of explorers in the world. countryside. And eventually, lifeguards should have access to mental health programs to help volunteers who sometimes have to deal with emergency situations that can shake up career lifeguards.

Search and rescue teams search for the body of Salvador Garcia-Atance after a massive avalanche February 19, 2019, near Telluride Resort. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

“We see the federal government and state governments promoting tourism, which is great. We need these visitors in our mountain economies. But we have to recognize that there are costs associated with these things,” Sparhawk said. “The way the support system currently works, it can be difficult to provide the level of services required in some of these communities.”

The new Keep Colorado Wild parks pass could direct $2.5 million a year to search and rescue teams, if enough Coloradans choose the $29 pass when they check in their vehicles. It is also a step in the multi-year plan to better support search and rescue operations in the state. the 111-page report published by the task force earlier this year outlined more than a dozen steps toward the overall plan to keep rescuers in the backcountry without passing the costs on to those who call for help.

Recommendations in what state SAR officials call a one-of-a-kind report include:

  • Investigate the value of helicopters dedicated to relief needs
  • Improved communication equipment
  • A statewide workers compensation coverage plan
  • Reimbursement of materials and mileage
  • Additional state funding
  • Deployment of a development manager to continue grantmaking, fundraising and membership programs
  • Mental Health Clinical Services for Lifeguards
  • Reinforced training for volunteers
  • Funding for public education on outdoor safety, including easy-to-use decision aids for outdoor explorers.
  • Enhanced Reimbursement and Support for Mission Coordinators
  • Hire a data analyst to better identify trends and potential improvements

Funding from the Keep Colorado Wild Pass will help, but Colorado’s 50 search and rescue teams — funded by the state’s 62 county sheriffs — have a combined budget of more than $9 million, Sparhawk said. .

New legislation gives the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission the ability to increase the 25 cents collected for the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund on every hunting and fishing license and registration of boats, snowmobiles and all-terrain vehicles .

In 2019, these collections, plus sales of Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue Maps at $3 and $12, contributed $565,000 to the fund. In 2019, this fund reimbursed $38,000 to teams involved in 23 missions and granted $340,000 to 35 teams for equipment and training. (Reports for 2020 and 2021 are not available.)

Sparhawk said the task force urged a diverse stream of support for search and rescue teams without relying too heavily on a single source. If a recession hits and tax revenues fall, search and rescue teams must deal with it with other sources, including federal funds, grants and donations, he said.

A critical need for all teams right now is more volunteers. Teams in expensive upland communities struggle to attract and retain young volunteers. And these are the teams that are seeing the biggest increases in calls as more residents and visitors flood into mountain towns.

The challenge of volunteerism mirrors that of fire chiefs in mountain towns, who are increasingly receiving calls for help as rising costs of living and housing push volunteers further away from resort areas. These rural fire crews were once all volunteers, but many have evolved into paid fire crews using equipment and fire stations supported by special tax districts. Search and rescue teams do not offer to pay for volunteers. That’s too ambitious a goal, with the task force report showing the value of the time donated by the state’s 2,800 volunteer lifeguards at nearly $17 million a year.

“But maybe we can keep more people if it’s not so expensive for them to volunteer,” Sparhawk said.

Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, speaks during the CSAR Avalanche Media Event Thursday, March 11, 2021, on Vail Pass. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

It’s not just the rescuers in the field who need better support. Volunteer mission coordinators who work shifts — for most teams, they’re on call for a week every two months when orchestrating responses to all calls — are feeling the stress. The volume of calls for some of the High National Team Mission Coordinators, such as those who volunteer for the Summit Rescue Group of Summit County, “is not sustainable,” the group’s spokeswoman said. , Anna DeBattiste. Last year, Summit Rescue Group received a record 217 calls for help. So far this year, the group is ahead of 2021, with 60 calls.

“They’re only on call every 10 weeks or so, but the week they’re there is a huge number of calls,” she said.

While the number of statewide rescue missions is still being compiled for 2021, Sparhawk sees evidence that the peak seen during the pandemic lockdown in 2020 is plateauing.

This could be a nice respite for overworked teams. And it could give teams time to mount a public education campaign that could reduce calls by helping people before they get into trouble, he said.

Sparhawk points to the ““Smart Adventure” Program launched by the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association in 2004 as a model to help backcountry users with online planning tools and advice. He imagines toolkits and programs that target specific user groups, helping them better prepare for outdoor adventures.

“Let’s get people educated before they go out,” he said. “It would save us so much.”

Carrie Hauser, chair of the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission and president of Colorado Mountain College, is eager to explore how CPW can help educate outdoor travelers before their adventures.

” It’s an opportunity. We recognize that more people want to be in these amazing places and outdoors and we need to have a way to make them safer and make sure we can get people home if they have any issues,” said Hauser said.

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