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Colorado’s volunteer search and rescue teams are overwhelmed and there are fears it’s going to get worse

The state’s 2,800 rescue volunteers -- a shrinking pool -- respond to 3,600 calls for help each year. Colorado’s natural resources boss said that’s “a train wreck happening before our eyes” and wants the legislature to help.

Search and rescue crews look for the body of Salvador Garcia-Atance after a massive avalanche Feb. 19, 2019, near Telluride Resort. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)
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It’s been 23 years since Colorado lawmakers last crafted legislation to help the state’s now 2,800 search and rescue volunteers. And with increasing calls stressing overwhelmed volunteers, they could use a bit of help. 

Help could come with a bipartisan bill making its way through the Capitol that would explore potential funding options to better equip and train search and rescue teams. The proposed legislation would also develop programs to support the mental health of volunteers who respond to all calls for help from Colorado’s backcountry. 

Senate Bill 130 directs the Department of Natural Resources to study issues challenging the state’s 46 search and rescue teams and to develop a plan to help them. The bill, introduced last month, is sponsored by a coalition from the high country made up of Sens. Kerry Donovan, D-Vail, and Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and Reps. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, and Jim Wilson, R-Salida. 

As Colorado’s population grows, teams are responding to more calls. Search and rescuers already are compiling data to highlight the challenges behind the increasing workload. The preliminary information on their membership, missions, costs and recruitment — gathered by the Colorado Search and Rescue Association — reveal about 2,800 search and rescue volunteers spend about 500,000 hours responding to about 3,600 calls for help annually. 

And those calls for help are increasing every year, with search and rescue teams near highly trafficked recreation areas seeing calls for help double in the past five years. Some teams are responding to more than 200 calls a year.

MORE: Pre-season training preps avalanche dogs from Colorado and far beyond for search and rescue

Dan Gibbs, the director of the Department of Natural Resources, wants to better understand the needs of rescuers, from reimbursement to psychological services to workers’ compensation to improving services and communication across counties. 

And he feels a sense of urgency. 

“There are 80,000 people moving to the state every year, and 90% of them say they spend time outdoors,” Gibbs said. “This is a train wreck happening before our eyes, and this bill will go a long way to helping us understand our needs for the future.”

Gibbs has a long relationship with search and rescue in Colorado. As a college student in Gunnison, he served on the Western State Mountain Rescue Team, the only collegiate-based, nationally certified search-and-rescue team in the country. He responded to body recoveries in Black Canyon of the Gunnison and avalanches in the Elks above Crested Butte. 

As a Summit County commissioner, he saw the financial needs for Summit County Search and Rescue and then served on the state’s Search and Rescue Advisory Council, helping to reimburse agencies for mission costs from the Search and Rescue Fund. 

“So I have a lot of skin in the game with this,” Gibbs said. 

Search and rescue services are provided by county sheriffs, who can ask for reimbursement for rescue missions — which victims never pay for — through taxpayer dollars via the Department of Local Affairs. Gibbs said a closer study of the issues with search and rescue in the state would identify the benefits of the DOLA system or determine whether search and rescue should be a part of the Department of Natural Resources or maybe the Department of Public Safety. 

Ideally, after the data are reviewed and problems identified, Gibbs would like to see services that address the mental health needs of rescuers. He’d like to see funding plans that can help teams pay for equipment, training and services. 

“What are the needs and how can we create a scenario where the teams have what they need to help people in the backcountry? We have people out there working very hard as volunteers, and we should do what we can to support them. I’m optimistic this bill will pass,” Gibbs said.

A backcountry skier ascends in the Snodgrass Mountain trail area near Crested Butte on Jan. 26, 2019,, carrying avalanche gear and a rescue beacon. The area is beautiful, but also prone to big snow slides that can capture and kill skiers. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The last time state lawmakers considered legislation for search and rescue teams was 1987, when they created the Search and Rescue Fund, which generates money through the sale of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card and a 25-cent charge on hunting and fishing licenses as well as registrations for boats, snowmobiles and off-highway vehicles. 

It’s not just calls for help that are going up. The age of team members is climbing. Teams are struggling to keep members onboard, as the transient nature of work in the high country shuffles people from job to job and location to location. 

“We are getting new people, but they don’t seem to be sticking around like they used to,” said Jeff Sparhawk, the president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. 

Sparhawk also hears from teams that are struggling with training and keeping equipment up to date. 

“There are new techniques and training out there, but it’s hard to stay current with the latest things that are going on, especially when teams are responding to so many calls a year,” Sparhawk said. 

MORE: The snowbikers were prepared. But the “avalanche terrain trap” near Vail still stole two of their lives.

The psychological impacts for rescuers can be heavy, Sparhawk said. 

“We are on call 24/7 so it’s also tough on our families and our friends and our lives in general,” he said. “How sustainable is it to ask volunteers to leave their families and leave their jobs on all these calls, which may take 10 minutes or may take 10 days. If we can create a system where volunteers are supported, maybe they will be willing to stick around. Maybe we can recruit more to join.” 

The calls for help are changing, too. It’s not just lost hunters or overdue hikers. Search and rescue calls today run the gamut, from people with dementia who have wandered away from caregivers, to suicidal people going for a final hike, to injured snowmobilers, to skiers caught in avalanches, to paddlers swept away in remote rivers. Search and rescue teams don’t ask the why questions, they only need a where, what and when, and they will mobilize. 

Sparhawk is quick to note that all this talk about new approaches for search and rescue does not mean anything is broken. There is no talk about charging victims for rescues. (The cost of rescue missions in Colorado has never been charged to people having a bad day in the mountains.) 

“Call for help and we are responding,” Sparhawk said. “We will be there. No one should be hesitant to call 911.”

Ice climber Tyler Stableford of Carbondale descends into Box Canyon in the Ouray Ice Park on Jan. 5, 2020. Stableford, who has been climbing for three decades, has been regularly coming to Ouray to climb ice for the last several years. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Dale Atkins joined the Front Range’s busy Alpine Rescue Team in 1974. The veteran avalanche researcher who is often the first on the scene for devastating avalanches — like the Sheep Creek slide on Loveland Pass that killed five friends in April 2013 — has seen things he can’t unsee. 

The volatility of mountain play can change lives in a blink, and search and rescuers witness the devastation firsthand, Atkins said.

“There is no such thing as closure. The memories good and bad stay with us forever and they shape us into the people that we are,” Atkins said. “It’s hard for us sometimes because we go out and bring back the people who are doing the things we love to do. We get to experience the very best and the very worst of the mountains.”

Looking up the March 7, 2019, Jones Pass avalanche path at the crown. The massive slide killed an employee of a backcountry ski company. (Provided by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center)

Volunteering for search and rescue can take a toll on family members and employers as well. It’s not like other volunteer gigs where schedules are set. Searchers dash away during holidays and workdays. That’s a cost beyond the dollars and hours, Atkins said. 

“The reason we search and rescue members can be successful is because of the benevolence of our families and our employers,” he said. “And I think employers recognize the value that a search and rescue member brings to their day job.”

So say the bill passes. The study is completed. The issues are identified. What does it look like for search and rescue teams across the state? 

Sparhawk has some ideas:

  • Establish a retirement benefit for rescuers that mirrors the pension fund offered to volunteer firefighters.
  • Find funds to help searchers deploy the latest tools and don the equipment they need to chase down people in need. 
  • Create  a formal program that warns newcomers about the mental strains they can expect as a rescuer as well as services for rescuers who need assistance. 
  • Develop a  health care program for search and rescue members.  
  • Find workers compensation coverage that doesn’t get wonky when rescuers cross county lines and fall under the jurisdiction of another team. 
  • And perhaps there’s a way to develop a statewide search and rescue radio system so teams can communicate across county lines on the same radio channels and networks. 

“This is the first time we’ve seen this kind of proposal. For me, it’s the first time I’ve been involved in anything like this. It’s been super to see the support we are getting from sheriffs and county commissioners and bipartisan support in the legislature,” Sparhawk said. “I hope people are recognizing that search and rescue has been around for more than 70 years in Colorado and it’s really part of what Colorado is.”

ABOUT THE SAR CARD: The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card, which supports the Search and Rescue Fund that reimburses teams for expenses, costs $3 a year or $12 for five years. Buy it here. 

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