Colorado officials push for study to help improve search and rescue operations
Editors note: This story has been updated to clarify that Summit County Rescue Group receives part of its funding directly from Summit County.
FRISCO — New resources might soon be on their way to search and rescue groups across the state.
Earlier this month, a new bill known as the “Strengthen Backcountry Search and Rescue in Colorado Act” unanimously passed through the Colorado Senate Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, its first step in moving through the legislative process since its introduction to the state Senate in January.
The bipartisan bill — sponsored by Sen. Bob Rankin, R-Carbondale, and Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, among others — would serve as one of the initial actions in redesigning backcountry search and rescue programs statewide as groups struggle to keep up with increasing demand for responses.
“Colorado’s backcountry search and rescue teams are near and dear to my heart as someone who has worked alongside the brave men and women who provide such a vital service to the state of Colorado,” Colorado Department of Natural Resources Executive Director, and former Summit County commissioner, Dan Gibbs said in a statement on the bill’s passage. “Colorado’s population growth and increase in outdoor recreation is causing strains to our backcountry search and rescue teams.
“Simply put, the demand for (backcountry search and rescue) is far outpacing the human and technical resources, and we owe it to our volunteer heroes to review how this service is organized and supported. This important legislation will study how the increase of rescues are impacting the financial, logistical and emotional health of volunteer rescuers and our local sheriffs and governments.”
If passed, the bill would essentially mandate the Department of Natural Resources conduct a study and develop recommendations on issues related to backcountry search and rescue operations, including the adequacy of resources and benefits available to volunteers, funding opportunities for equipment and gear, team needs for additional training and education, and the physical and psychological impacts of providing backcountry care.
The primary impetus for the study seems to be a growing demand for search and rescue services statewide. While the state’s existing programs were originally designed for occasional backcountry responses, Colorado now averages about 3,600 search and rescue incidents per year.
About 92% of Coloradans recreate outdoors, according to Colorado Parks and Wildlife. The number of rescues continues to increase as backcountry recreation grows in popularity, including here in the Summit County area.
“We’re a very busy team, and we’ve been getting busier for the last few years,” Summit County Rescue Group spokesman Charles Pitman said. “That’s not just an increase in volunteer hours but a lot of wear and tear on vehicles and equipment, as well. So I think there could be a case to be made for providing some additional support for teams that find themselves in situations where they can’t afford that new technical or medical gear, or the trucks they need to respond properly.”
Summit County Rescue Group responded to 83 rescue calls from 911 in 2014, a number that ballooned to 154 in 2019. Despite the rapid increase, Pitman said he thinks the rescue group has the resources to deal with the call load, but he noted that funding and expenses are largely inconsistent from year to year.
“Some years, we’ll have ATVs and snowmobiles to replace, and some years we don’t,” Pitman said. “It could be $25,000 one year and $80,000 another year.”
Summit County Rescue Group receives some of its funding directly from the county and managed through the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. But the group receives most of its funding from grants and donations from local organizations like The Summit Foundation, Breckenridge Grand Vacations and others. Though, Pitman said donations to the group dropped off last year, attributing the hit to recent changes in federal tax laws that increased standard deductions for taxpayers, removing the need for itemized deductions for many and potentially taking away one incentive to give.
With increasing costs and the specter of falling donations lingering overhead, Pitman said it’s important to emphasize that not all search and rescue teams are fortunate enough to have the same resources as Summit County’s, and he said he’d support studying ways to improve operations statewide.
There are about 2,800 volunteer search and rescue members on almost 50 teams statewide, giving an estimated 500,000 hours of support each year. None of Colorado’s search and rescue teams charge for their services.
“I think that this could go a long way to leveling the playing field as to how the various teams throughout the state are equipped and trained,” Pitman said. “Smaller teams and those with fewer missions often receive fewer donations from the general public. But that doesn’t mean their requirements are dramatically different than busier teams. They still require training, operational vehicles (ATVs, snowmobiles, trucks), technical gear, radios, medical equipment, water rescue gear and the list goes on. Such a bill could go a long way to improving their situation and, hence, their efficiency and response times. The benefits to a lost party could be considerable.”
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