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Colorado takes first step to strengthen search and rescue teams as they’re overwhelmed by a dramatic increase in calls

Legislation moves the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund from DOLA to Colorado Parks and Wildlife as part of a larger plan to better support that state’s 50 rescue teams

Colorado Search and Rescue members across different groups practice during the avalanche media event Thursday, March 11, 2021, on Vail Pass, CO. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Jordan White, the head of Mountain Rescue Aspen, sent 17 of his rescuers. Aspen Highlands ski patrol sent another 20 patrollers. They called a Colorado National Guard helicopter too. 

The rescuers, working in dangerous snow conditions on that Thursday in March, spent more than 10 hours setting up a rope system to haul the 23-year-old snowboarder from Chicago up from the edge of treacherous cliffs outside the ski area boundary.

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

“If he had not had cell phone service, I’m not sure it would have worked out for him,” White said. “You can credit ski patrol, Mountain Rescue Aspen and the sheriff’s office with the save that night. Without help that guy would not have made it back up.”

This story first appeared in The Outsider, the premium outdoor newsletter by Jason Blevins.

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There are more than 50 search and rescue teams with 2,800 volunteer rescuers in Colorado and most have seen dramatic increases in calls for help — more than 3,600 a year — in the last two years. Last year Colorado lawmakers funded a task force to study how the state can better support those volunteers who donate 200-to-400 hours a year for rescue missions and training. 

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

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“This is a step in the process. We are building the foundation for a sustainable search-and-rescue system in Colorado,” said Jeff Sparhawk, the executive director for the Colorado Search and Rescue Association that represents the state’s teams that operate under county sheriffs. “We are still negotiating what that looks like, but once we have this system in place we will have support for teams and our professional volunteers.”

Ideally, volunteer rescuers soon will have workers compensation insurance, to protect them if they are injured on a mission or while training. They will have better funding, so maybe they don’t have to pay for gas or gear when venturing into the backcountry to rescue lost or injured travelers. Maybe there will be a fund that could help teams upgrade equipment to keep pace with the fastest, lightest, priciest gear used by increasing numbers of backcountry explorers. And eventually rescuers should have access to mental health programs to help the volunteers who occasionally must deal with emergency situations that can rattle career emergency responders. 

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)

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

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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 register their vehicles. That also is a step in the years-long plan to better support search-and-rescue operations in the state. The 111-page report published by the task force earlier this year outlines more than a dozen steps toward the overarching plan to keep rescuers in the backcountry without passing any costs on to those who call for help. 

The recommendations in what state SAR leaders call a first-of-its-kind report include:

  • Studying the value of helicopters dedicated to rescue needs
  • Improved communication equipment
  • A statewide worker’s comp coverage plan
  • Gear and mileage reimbursement 
  • Additional state funding
  • Deploying a development manager to pursue grants, fundraising and membership programs
  • Mental health clinical services for rescuers
  • Increased training for volunteers
  • Funding for public outdoor safety education, including easy-to-use decision-making aids for outdoor explorers.
  • Stronger reimbursement and support for mission coordinators
  • Hiring a data analyst to better identify trends and potential improvements

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

The new legislation gives the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission the ability to increase the 25 cents collected for the Colorado Search and Rescue Fund from every hunting and fishing license and registration for boats, snowmobiles and off-road vehicles. 

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In 2019, those collections, plus sales of $3 and $12 Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue cards, provided $565,000 to the fund. In 2019, that 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 diversified flow of support for search and rescue teams without too much reliance on any one source. If a recession hits and tax revenues fall, search and rescue teams need to withstand that with other sources, including federal funds, grants and donations, he said. 

One critical need for all teams right now is more volunteers. Teams in expensive high country communities struggle to attract and retain younger volunteers. And those are the teams that are seeing the biggest increases in calls as more residents and visitors crowd mountain towns. 

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The volunteer challenge mirrors that of mountain town fire chiefs, who are seeing more calls for help while the increasing cost of living and housing are pushing more volunteers farther from resort areas. Those rural firefighting teams used to be all volunteer but many have grown into crews with paid firefighters using equipment and firehouses supported by special taxing districts. Search and rescue teams are not proposing to pay volunteers. That’s too big of a goal, with the task force report showing the value of the time donated by the state’s 2,800 volunteer rescuers close to $17 million a year. 

“But maybe we can keep more people around if it’s not so costly 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 that need better support. The volunteer mission coordinators who work in shifts — for most teams they are on-call for a week every couple months when they orchestrate responses to all calls — are feeling the stress. The call volume for some of the high country team mission coordinators, like those volunteering for Summit County’s Summit Rescue Group, “is not sustainable,” said the group’s spokeswoman Anna DeBattiste. Last year Summit Rescue Group received a record 217 calls for help. So far this year the group is pacing ahead of 2021, with 60 calls.

“They only go on-call every 10 weeks or so but the week they are on, it’s a tremendous number of calls,” she said.

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

That could be a good reprieve for overburdened teams. And it could give teams time to assemble a public education campaign that might reduce calls by helping people before they get in trouble, he said. 

Sparhawk points to the “Adventure Smart” program launched by the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association in 2004 as a model for helping backcountry users with online planning tools and tips. 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. “That would save us so much.”

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

“This is an opportunity. We recognize that more people want to be in these incredible places and outdoors and we’ve got to have a way of making them safer and making sure we can bring people home if they get in trouble,” Hauser said. 


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