Summit County Rescue Group reflects on state study looking to improve search and rescue systems |

Summit County Rescue Group reflects on state study looking to improve search and rescue systems

Biggest needs are financial, administrative and mental health supports

Volunteers with the Summit County Rescue Group evacuate an injured snowmobiler Jan. 28 on Vail Pass.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy photo

A study from Colorado Parks and Wildlife suggested several ways to improve support for volunteer backcountry search and rescue groups.

Parks and Wildlife was directed to conduct a study with stakeholders to identify challenges with the state’s existing search and rescue programs through the passage of Senate Bill 21-245. The study, which was published Jan. 17, saw responses from 49 search and rescue teams along with 41 sheriff’s offices.

The overall consensus of the study is that the state’s search and rescue system doesn’t need dramatic changes, rather it needs to develop new and innovative ways to support volunteer responders.

Summit County Rescue Group spokesperson Anna DeBattiste, who is also a spokesperson for the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, agreed with these findings.

“We are not looking to revamp a system that has been working for 75 years,” DeBattiste said. “We’re looking to tweak it and to get more support and resources, but we’re not looking to overhaul it.

“It’s not like it’s broken. It’s just that we can see where we’re heading, and in the long term, it’s probably not sustainable without some additional help.”

Parks and Wildlife spokesperson Bridget O’Rourke Kochel wrote in an email that financial and administrative support is the key area where most groups could use the most help, and DeBattiste agreed this is the case in Summit.

Summit County Rescue Group is funded mostly through donations and grants as well as a small budget from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. DeBattiste said there’s always a need for funding for new equipment and gear to complete rescues, and that it’s difficult asking volunteers to help on the administrative side when they have their own jobs and lives outside of volunteering on missions.

“If there were various sources of state funding, as has been proposed, then perhaps we could lighten the admin load on our people,” DeBattiste said.

In 2021, Summit County Rescue Group was the second busiest team in the state, responding to 217 calls. As one of the busiest teams, DeBattiste said it’s also one of the more well-resourced teams. But with continuously increasing call volumes for Summit year after year, DeBattiste said equipment and training needs are also increasing, so additional funding could be helpful.

The study also found that volunteers spend about $1,587 of their own money annually on equipment, fuel and other expenses, and DeBattiste said she thinks that figure isn’t too far off from what she sees in Summit.

“We don’t have trouble recruiting members, but I think some of our members have trouble with the personal expenses,” DeBattiste said. “I mean, it’s difficult to live in Summit County, and with our high mission load, we need young people with strong backs and endurance as our team ages, and so it gets harder and harder for the young people we need to be able to afford to do this.”

DeBattiste said another critical aspect of the study is the push to continue public outdoor education on safety in the backcountry. The group does a lot of safety education, but she said it’s not enough and more resources are needed.

“More and more people are visiting us, more and more people are playing in the backcountry, and the higher those visitor stats go, the better chance that we’re going to have folks that are inexperienced in the backcountry and that need some kind of public education efforts,” DeBattiste said.

DeBattiste said the study recommends the Colorado Search and Rescue Association partner with the state so the association can have access to state resources to provide better public education products that all teams can use.

“We need to have access to professionally produced safety education products,” DeBattiste said. “And once we have those at a state level, Summit County Rescue Group can really make use of those to try to drive those call volume stats down.”

Another key point in the study is about mental and physical health resources for volunteers conducting high-risk, oftentimes stressful rescue missions. DeBattiste said Summit County Rescue Group has done critical incident stress debriefs after tough missions and that about 2/3 of the team has been through a stress training pilot program but has never had any kind of comprehensive program to help with mental health resources.

“It really became apparent to me a few weeks ago when we had the avalanche fatalities on Hoosier Pass how much we need something like that,” DeBattiste said.

Kochel said she hopes the study can bring a clear support system for search and rescue volunteers and their agencies. This includes improved efficiencies and cooperation between volunteer organizations, county sheriffs, and the state and federal agencies in addition to better tracking of mission loads and resources, and improved service to Colorado’s outdoors community.

“(Parks and Wildlife) would like to provide umbrella administrative support for volunteers and participating agencies,” Kochel wrote in an email. “(Parks and Wildlife) does not want to take the role of the county sheriff or minimize the need and importance of volunteers — but would like to streamline and help with coordinating resources, administrative needs and provide structure to the Colorado (backcountry search and rescue) system.”

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