Colorado looks to better support search and rescue operations statewide
A newly released study on backcountry search and rescue operations in Colorado hopes to improve how these volunteer groups are supported by the state in future years.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife was directed to conduct a study with stakeholders to identify challenges with the existing, volunteer-based backcountry search and rescue program in Colorado through the passage of Senate Bill 21-245.
The study, published Jan. 17, saw responses from 49 search and rescue teams in the state along with 41 sheriff’s offices, including Grand County Search and Rescue and the Grand County Sheriff’s Office.
“Coloradans love our mountains and open spaces, but increasing backcountry visitation is, unfortunately, pushing the volunteer responders to their limits and outpacing available funding,” Colorado Search and Rescue Association Director Jeff Sparhawk said in a statement. “This study is incredibly valuable because it allows us to be proactive and look to the future to create a more sustainable system for all of Colorado.”
According to the report, Colorado search and rescue organizations respond to more than 3,600 incidents a year — more than any other state. There are currently about 2,800 unpaid search and rescue responders in the state serving on almost 50 nonprofit teams.
These responders give over 500,000 person-hours annually without compensation for training or responding to incidents. The study also found that volunteers spend more than $1,500 annually out-of-pocket on equipment, fuel and other expenses to respond.
The study evaluated a number of issues in the state’s current search and rescue system, like coordination, compensation, retirement, equipment, funding, training and safety education.
“Our staff was grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with our state partners and reflect on the successes and challenges of (backcountry search and rescue),” Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow said. “This foundational understanding of the current system helped our study team think about innovative ways to modernize our processes and recommend solutions that will advance (backcountry search and rescue) moving forward.”
Some of the study’s top recommendations included strategically increasing the use of helicopters and improving field communications, along with looking at a single coverage option for workers’ compensation.
The report estimated that the 2,800 volunteers statewide contribute more than $4.4 million of their own money annually to search and rescue, and recommended that the state offer a mileage reimbursement or stipends to help defray costs.
With nearly half of search and rescue teams feeling that they have less than enough gear to complete their missions, the study recommended that state funds allow for the continued purchase of equipment.
The study found that large teams have yearly expenses over $200,000 while small teams may operate with less than $10,000.
“When considering (backcountry search and rescue) services directly enable the successes seen in Colorado’s outdoor recreation economy estimated at $62.5 billion, it is clear there are major funding disparities,” the report said.
Currently, search and rescue teams are funded from a few main sources depending on the team — the sheriff’s office, donations, and the state’s search and rescue fund.
The study recommended that the state’s search and rescue fund be administered by Colorado Parks and Wildlife going forward, which would enable more money to go to the teams through CPW’s enterprise status.
The report also recommends seeking additional state funding, an engagement of other partners who benefit from search and rescue services but are not paying to support the teams — such as the outdoor recreation industry — and hiring a development manager to map out other funding strategies.
The effort surveyed volunteers’ mental and physical health needs, documenting an increased risk of burnout and concerns faced by search and rescue team members.
The study recommended planning for needed mental health services, training search and rescue professionals on awareness, mitigation and critical incident support, and coordinating clinical services.
“Considering all of the significant challenges that (backcountry search and rescue) faces, the study team did not find a need to recommend dramatic changes to the current … system,” the study concluded. “Rather, the best path forward is to develop new and innovative ways to support and allow the volunteer responders to continue to serve their local communities and all of Colorado.”
See the full study at cpw.state.co.us/Documents/Financial-Sustainability/Backcountry-Search-and-Rescue-Study.pdf.
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