Lost hikers rely on unpaid rescuers. Colorado could change that.

Embarrassed by an aging volunteer base, search and rescue officials across the country say they are struggling to cope with an increase in calls for help.

“The lack of lifeguards is a chronic problem in many areas,” said Jeff Sparhawk, president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. “Some teams are very hard hit. “

Colorado lawmakers say the problem is urgent, and legislation enacted earlier this year could lead to a radical rethink of the current model of search and rescue, also known as SAR. The effort could lead to significantly expanded state oversight of the work and a major financial commitment to field volunteers.

“This need has gone unanswered in this state for too long,” said state representative Julie McCluskie, a Democrat who sponsored the measure. It was adopted almost unanimously. “I was surprised to learn that more had not been done and that the state needs to start playing a role in funding, designing and even standardizing how search and rescue work.”

Many other states are facing the same pressures 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 say they 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 groups of volunteers overseen by a local sheriff’s department. They pay their own costs for training, equipment and travel, often spending thousands of dollars a year out of pocket. They should be able to leave work or home on short notice for grueling and time-consuming assignments. These requirements have made it difficult to recruit younger members, many of whom lack the financial stability or flexibility to commit to joining a team.

These problems have been exacerbated by the rising cost of living in many resort areas and a broader downward trend in participation in community and service organizations, according to search and rescue officials.

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At the same time, since the start of the pandemic, Americans have been exploring the outdoors in record numbers and finding themselves increasingly in difficulty.

“The calls were more difficult and more frequent,” said McCluskie. “The number of rescues has certainly increased.

The new law requires state officials to assess by next January how search and rescue is being conducted in Colorado. Lawmakers have also committed $ 2.5 million per year for search and rescue spending, and McCluskie believes lawmakers are willing to invest in a different model, with the new money as a starting point.

The study will examine the viability of creating a corps of full-time professional rescuers under an existing state agency that could lead state search and rescue efforts. For Colorado’s 3,000 or so volunteers, this could create a payment and benefits structure that would make participation more sustainable.

Lawmakers anticipate that the published study will provide the contours of the legislation they will pass in the next session. They expect to consider compensating search and rescue teams for their training and mission time, providing them with equipment and reimbursing expenses. Lawmakers could also approve workers’ compensation, disability protections, 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. “Lawmakers have started to understand that these teams are not protected. “

Colorado law is also launching a pilot program to provide mental health services to search and rescue volunteers.

“The mental and emotional strain that we put on people is enormous,” said Sparhawk. “Our families don’t know if we’ll be home tonight or if we’ll be rescuing. We are dealing with a seriously injured or deceased person, or a family who is having the worst day of their life.

The study will also examine ways to increase coordination of search and rescue efforts between local, state and federal agencies. And it will consider a role for the state in standardizing volunteer training and licensing, which is now happening at the county level.

Currently, Colorado search and rescue teams receive some funding through the sale of hunting and fishing licenses, as well as other outdoor activities, but that’s only about $ 700,000 per year.

“It was never enough, and it certainly isn’t enough now,” said Heather Dugan, deputy director of field services with Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the agency leading the study. search and rescue. “We need an umbrella structure that can help organize more effective search and rescue efforts statewide.”

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Colorado search and rescue officials are hopeful that offering compensation and benefits will allow more volunteers to join us.

“The younger ones with the strong knees and backs that we need, they work three or four jobs just to live here,” Sparhawk said. “If we could ease the financial burden, they would have a better ability to volunteer their time. “

Colorado is one of many states with overwhelmed search and rescue teams. Many teams have been hit hard by the pandemic, as COVID-19 fears kept older volunteers on the sidelines and lockdowns limited the ability to train new members. Other members who lost their jobs no longer had the financial resources to volunteer. And as people flocked outside, some teams received a record number of calls for help.

“Overall, we’re stuck in recruiting and new members,” said Bill Gillespie, president of the Washington State Search and Rescue Volunteer Advisory Council. “It has been an uphill battle. [Rescue calls] are running a little further than we have traditionally been, and the severity of injuries has increased. We’re going to have to make some changes.

Gillespie said two counties in Washington have consolidated their search and rescue operations and that he wants more groups to consider joining forces because not all counties can support their own team of dogs or vehicles while -ground.

“We have this great battle to make the public understand that we are not getting paid, we are doing it on our own,” he said. “People spend thousands of dollars each year, taking time away from family and work. “

In Michigan, a tourism boom has strained local utilities in rural areas, including search and rescue.

“Search and rescue is something that can take a tremendous amount of community resources, time, and personnel to accomplish, and at the same time you have thousands of other people who might need emergency services during. this period, “said State 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 revenues going to support public safety programs, including search and rescue teams. Lawmakers are still working on the details, including the tax figures and how much money they would provide, but McBroom is hoping to have something in place before next year’s summer tourist season.

Boyer, with the National Search and Rescue Group, said few other states had passed legislation to step up their rescue efforts. But as lawmakers are increasingly aware of the problems facing the current system, Colorado officials and rescuers are hoping they can create a role model for others to follow.

“What we’re trying to do hasn’t really been done anywhere,” Sparhawk said. “How are we going to change the structure, so that makes sense in the long run, so it’s a sustainable situation?” “

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