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State bill could bring improvements to Routt County Search and Rescue

A bill passing through the state legislature would benefit Routt County Search and Rescue, according to local volunteers. It would study needs among state rescue organizations and identity more consistent resources to help them respond to calls.
Routt County Search and Rescue/courtesy

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A bill passing through the state legislature could bring more resources to volunteer search and rescue groups throughout Colorado, including Routt County’s organization.

The bill, known as  “Strengthen Backcountry Search and Rescue in Colorado Act,” heads to the Senate Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, Feb. 25, following unanimous approval from the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee earlier in the month. If passed, it would develop recommendations on issues related to backcountry search and rescue. 

According to the bill’s text, this would include evaluations of the adequacy of resources available to volunteers who provide search and rescue services, funding needs and coordination among the various organizations involved in such missions. It also would identify ways to improve volunteer trainings and public education.

One of the main problems search and rescue organizations face is a lack of consistent resources, according to Routt County Search and Rescue Vice President Harry Sandler. Some teams have a large membership and receive support from foundations that provide healthy revenue streams.

Routt County Search and Rescue consists of a team of 42 volunteers, according to Sandler. While that has been more than enough people to respond to calls, finding consistent funding has been a challenge. 

Currently, Search and Rescue gets money from local government, but that is just enough to cover annual operating costs. It does not account for mission expenses, training costs and buying new equipment. That money comes from donations and grants, Sandler said, which can vary largely from year to year. 

The gear required for search and rescue missions does not come cheap. One snowmobile capable of maneuvering off-trail conditions can cost well over $10,000, according to Sandler. 

Having a more reliable funding source, as the bill seeks to identify would provide more consistency and reliability in Routt County Search and Rescue’s budget. 

It also would help to address the stress, both physical and mental, volunteers face when they go into the field. 

“Simply put, the demand for (search and rescue services) 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,” Dan Gibbs, executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, said in a news release following the bill’s passage. 

In many areas, such as in Summit County, mission numbers are higher than ever. The Summit County Rescue Group responded to 83 rescue calls in 2014, according to a recent article from Summit Daily. Last year, that number jumped to 154 calls. 

While that trend holds true for heavily recreated areas, Routt County actually has seen a dip in calls for service. 

“We are bucking the overall trend that a lot of Front Range and (Interstate 70) teams are seeing,” Sandler said.

A decade ago, local volunteers responded to 85 to 90 missions throughout the year, according to incident commander Kristia Check-Hill. Nowadays, that average is more like 60 missions per year, she said.

Sandler attributes Routt County’s decrease to its more remote location compared to where other search and rescue organizations operate. People who recreate in the local backcountry tend to be more purposeful with their trips, he surmised, taking additional time to plan their trips.

“Because of that, they might have more developed skills and knowledge of safely recreating in the backcountry,” Sandler said.

He added that the number of missions varies from year to year, and it is impossible to anticipate a demand in search and rescue services. When it comes to saving lives, ensuring organizations like his have the necessary resources to continue their work is something the lawmakers who sponsored the bill want to prioritize. 

That also includes mental health and crisis support services to help volunteers address the residual effects that can come from witnessing extreme trauma or death. 

“Colorado’s Backcountry Search and Rescue teams are literally the safety net for the Colorado way of life and our outdoor recreation economy,” Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, said in a news release. 

Sparhawk added that he appreciates the Colorado legislature’s consideration of the bill “so that we can better provide these vital services for future residents and visitors to Colorado’s outdoors.”

To reach Derek Maiolo, call 970-871-4247, email dmaiolo@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @derek_maiolo.


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