America’s busiest search and rescue system at risk of collapse

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In Colorado, where the number of outdoor users is rapidly exceeding the bandwidth of local search and rescue (SAR) teams, volunteer rescuers are not only unpaid, they spend more than $1,500 of their own money every year to save other people’s lives.

It depends a new historical study conducted by Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) in 2021, to investigate reports of burnout, underfunding, and legal vulnerabilities among many of the state’s 50 all-volunteer, nonprofit SAR teams.

“If left unresolved, any of these issues could cause the [backcountry search and rescue] system in Colorado,” the report said.

The problem

Many backcountry users know that if they are stranded in the mountains or lost in the woods, they will have to rely on the grueling efforts of a search and rescue team to get them out. What many recreational enthusiasts don’t understand is that the vast majority of backcountry SAR teams in the United States are unpaid volunteers. That’s in stark contrast to places like Europe, where backcountry SAR people are paid professionals, says Anna DeBattiste, public information manager for the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, the nonprofit non-profit organization that represents many Colorado SAR teams and helps coordinate resource sharing between counties. during complex rescues.

“It’s different in other states too,” she adds. “In New Hampshire, New Hampshire Fish and Game is responsible for rescue. They largely do this themselves and only bring in additional volunteers when they need more manpower. It’s the same in Vermont. But in most states, sheriffs would tell you that they simply couldn’t respond to rescues without the volunteers.

This is certainly the case in Colorado, where teams now respond to more than 3,600 incidents each year, more than any other state. These volunteers donate a collective 500,000 hours of unpaid labor each year, driving their own vehicles and spending their own money on gas and equipment to reach remote relief sites. And those numbers don’t take into account the personal tolls rescuers face.

Members of Rocky Mountain Rescue bring back a 47-year-old missing snowshoer near the Nordic Center at Eldora Ski Area February 22, 2021 near Nederland, Colorado. (Photo: Helen H. Richardson/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images/Contributor)



“Volunteers can see some pretty difficult things,” says Battiste. “There are body recoveries and, even worse, situations where someone is seriously injured in our care during a long evacuation. Too many traumatic experiences – or even one traumatic experience without the right mental health resources – that can wear someone down. According to the CPW study, more than two-thirds of backcountry SAR volunteers in Colorado are at risk of burnout, and nearly half of all volunteers reported mental health issues.

Compounding the problem? On many busy weekends, multiple rescue incidents occur simultaneously, leaving teams from adjacent counties unable to help each other or donate time or equipment. And even if they are able, sheriffs sometimes have to close requests for help simply because workers’ compensation plans don’t translate from county to county.

“So if your team needs dogs or helicopters or technical climbers for a rescue, and you can’t get them from the neighboring county because of a worker compensation issue, you have to go further and further to find those resources,” DeBattiste says. This can add hours to a rescue, time that some seriously injured patients simply don’t have.

The solution

After decades of watching these problems slowly worsen, Jeff Sparhawk, the executive director of the Colorado Search and Rescue Associationbrought them to the attention of lawmakers, who ultimately asked CPW to conduct their 2021 study. radical solutions.

“Currently, the vast majority of search and rescue funding comes from the search and rescue fees that come with our snowmobile and ATV registrations and our hunting and fishing licenses,” says Bridget O’Rourke Kochel, word of CPW. “Even in 2020 [which saw a vast increase in new outdoor users]that totaled around $600,000 over the year, which is really a drop in the bucket.

Starting in 2023, CPW will launch a new fundraising initiative: the “Keep Colorado Wild Pass,” an optional supplement to vehicle registrations. This should make it easy for people from all user groups to donate to backcountry search and rescue efforts, Kochel said. CPW expects the program to increase state SAR funding fivefold.

Of course, even that might not be enough. Among other recommendations, the study calls for funding to reimburse all SAR personnel for the use of their cell phones and vehicles – a step change from the status quo – and recommends more research into the provision of benefits such as life insurance or even pensions for long-time volunteers in some countries. points into the future. The study also recommends providing stress injury awareness training to all SAR volunteers and providing access to therapy and other mental health services. Finally, the study suggests reorganizing the current situation of workers’ remuneration in order to rationalize the sharing of resources.

All of these solutions could lift Colorado’s SAR network from its current collapsing position to one at the forefront of modern, robust backcountry search and rescue in the United States. And with the potential for exciting new legislation on the horizon, Battiste says it’s just the beginning.

“There’s so much more work to do, but this feels like a major first step,” he says.