Handicapped by an aging volunteer base, search and rescue leaders across the country say they are struggling to keep up with a surge in cries for help.
“The shortage of rescuers is a chronic problem in many areas,” said Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. “Some teams get hit really hard.”
Colorado lawmakers say the problem is urgent, and a bill passed earlier this year could lead to a dramatic rethinking of the current search and rescue model, also known as SAR. The effort could result in greatly expanded government oversight of the work and a large financial commitment to the local volunteers.
“That need has been neglected in this state for far too long,” said Julie McCluskie, Democrat, who supported the measure. It was voted almost unanimously. “I was surprised to find out that nothing more was being done and that the state has a role to play in funding, designing and even standardizing how search and rescue operations work.”
Many other states are facing the same stresses on their teams, but Colorado appears to be the first to consider drastic changes to the current search and rescue structure. Lawmakers and state operational leaders hope they can create a more sustainable rescue program and potentially serve as a national model.
The vast majority of search and rescue teams in the United States are volunteer groups overseen by a local sheriff’s department. They pay for their own training, equipment, and travel expenses, and often spend thousands of dollars a year out of their own pockets. They need the flexibility to leave their work or home at short notice for strenuous, time-consuming assignments. These requirements have made it difficult to recruit younger members, many of whom do not have the financial stability or flexibility to join a team.
These problems have been exacerbated by the rising cost of living in many vacation areas and a stronger trend towards decreasing participation in community and service organizations, search and rescue leaders say.
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At the same time, Americans have been exploring nature in record numbers since the beginning of the pandemic – and are getting increasingly into trouble.
“The calls were harder and more frequent,” said McCluskie. “The number of rescues has certainly increased.”
The new law instructs state officials to assess how search and rescue operations are conducted in Colorado by next January. Lawmakers also allocated $ 2.5 million annually in search and rescue costs, and McCluskie believes lawmakers are ready to invest in another model, starting with the new money.
The study will examine the feasibility of creating a full-time corps of professional rescuers under an existing government agency that could direct the state’s search and rescue efforts. For the approximately 3,000 volunteers in Colorado, this could create a remuneration and performance structure that makes participation more sustainable.
The legislature assumes that the published study will outline the legislation that it will take up in the next session. They expect them to consider compensating search and rescue teams for their training and deployment time, providing them with equipment, and reimbursing them for expenses. Legislators could also approve employee compensation, disability protection, and retirement and death benefits.
“Protecting volunteers is extremely important,” said Chris Boyer, executive director of the National Association for Search And Rescue, a Virginia-based nonprofit. “Legislators have started to think that these teams are not protected.”
The Colorado Act is also starting a pilot program of providing mental health services to search and rescue workers.
“The mental and emotional stress we humans put is enormous,” said Sparhawk. “Our families don’t know if we’re home or on the rescue tonight. We are dealing with a seriously injured person or a deceased person or a family who is having the worst day of their life. “
The study will also explore ways to improve coordination of search and rescue efforts among local, state, and federal agencies. And it will consider a role for the state in standardizing the training and admission of volunteers, which is now happening at the county level.
Currently, search and rescue teams in Colorado get some of the funding through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as other outdoor activities, but that only comes to about $ 700,000 a year.
“This has never been an appropriate amount, and it is definitely not an appropriate amount now,” said Heather Dugan, assistant director of field services for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the agency conducting the search and rescue study. “We need more an umbrella structure that can help organize more efficient search and rescue operations across the country.”
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Colorado Search and Rescue leaders hope that by offering some pay and benefits, more volunteers will be able to participate.
“The younger people with strong knees and strong backs that we need have three or four jobs just to live here,” Sparhawk said. “If we can alleviate the financial burden, they could better spend their time volunteering.”
Colorado is one of many states with overwhelmed search and rescue teams. Many teams have been hit hard by the pandemic as fears of COVID-19 kept senior volunteers on the sidelines and lockdowns restricting opportunities to train new members. Other members who had lost their jobs no longer had the financial means to volunteer. And as people streamed outside, some teams received record numbers of emergency calls.
“Overall, we’re not happy with the recruitment and new membership,” said Bill Gillespie, president of the Washington State Search and Rescue Volunteer Advisory Council. “It was an uphill battle. [Rescue calls] are a bit ahead of our previous traditions and the severity of injuries has increased. We’re going to have to make some changes. “
Gillespie said two Washington counties have consolidated their search and rescue operations and he wants more groups to consider joining forces as not every district can support its own dog team or ATV unit.
“We have this big fight to make it clear to the public that we are not getting paid, we are doing it all on our own,” he said. “People spend thousands of dollars every year, taking time off from family and work.”
In Michigan, a tourist boom has taxed local public services in rural areas, including search and rescue services.
“Search and rescue is something that can require a tremendous amount of community resources, time, and manpower, and at the same time there are thousands of other people who may need emergency services during that time,” said Senator Ed McBroom, a Republican.
McBroom proposed a bill that would allow local governments to impose an excise tax on short-term rentals, with the proceeds being used to support public safety programs, including search and rescue teams. Legislators are still working on details, including tax numbers and the amount of funding it would bring in, but McBroom hopes to get something into effect before next year’s summer season.
Boyer, of the national search and rescue group, said few other states have passed laws to aid their rescue efforts. However, as lawmakers become increasingly aware of the problems with the current system, Colorado officials and rescuers hope they can create a model that others can follow.
“What we’re trying to do hasn’t really been done anywhere,” said Sparhawk. “How are we going to change the structure so that it makes sense in the long term, so that it is a sustainable situation?”