Summit County Rescue Group mulls state study to improve search and rescue systems

Summit County Rescue Group volunteers evacuate an injured snowmobiler Jan. 28 over Vail Pass.
Summit County Rescue Group/Courtesy Photo

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

Parks and Wildlife was tasked with conducting a study with stakeholders to identify challenges to the state’s existing search and rescue programs through the passage of Senate Bill 21-245. The study, which was released on January 17, saw responses from 49 search and rescue teams as well as 41 sheriff’s offices.

The general consensus of the study is that the state’s search and rescue system does not need sweeping changes, but rather developing new and innovative ways to support volunteer responders.

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

“We’re not looking to revamp a system that’s been running for 75 years,” DeBattiste said. “We’re looking to polish it and 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 headed, and in the long run it’s probably not sustainable without some extra help.

Parks and Wildlife spokeswoman 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 said. agreed that this was the case in Summit.

Summit County Rescue Group is funded primarily by donations and grants along with a small budget from the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. DeBattiste said there was always a need for funding for new equipment and equipment to perform rescues, and it was difficult to ask volunteers to help on the administrative side when they had their own work and their own. life outside of mission volunteering.

“If there were various sources of state funding, as has been proposed, then maybe we could ease the administrative burden 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 most well-resourced teams. But with call volumes for Summit continuing to rise year after year, DeBattiste said equipment and training needs are also growing, so additional funding could be helpful.

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

“We don’t have a problem recruiting members, but I think some of our members have issues with personal expenses,” DeBattiste said. “I mean, it’s tough living in Summit County, and with our high mission load, we need young people with strong backs and stamina as our team gets older, and so it’s becoming to increasingly difficult for young people that we need to be able to afford to do that.

DeBattiste said another critical aspect of the study is the drive to continue outdoor public education about backcountry safety. 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 these visitor statistics are, the more likely we are to have inexperienced people in the backyard. -country and need some sort of public education effort,” DeBattiste said.

DeBattiste said the study recommends that the Colorado Search and Rescue Association partner with the state so the association can access 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 them at the state level, Summit County Rescue Group can really use them to try to lower those call volume stats.”

Another key takeaway from the study concerns mental and physical health resources for volunteers performing high-risk and often stressful rescue missions. DeBattiste said the Summit County Rescue Group had done stress debriefs after tough missions and about 2/3 of the team had gone through a stress training pilot program, but never had a stress training program. comprehensive program to help with mental health resources.

“It really became apparent to me a few weeks ago, when we had avalanche casualties on Hoosier Pass, how badly we needed something like this,” DeBattiste said.

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

“(Parks and Wildlife) would like to provide general administrative support to volunteers and participating agencies,” Kochel wrote in an email. “(Parks and Wildlife) does not want to play the role of county sheriff or downplay the need and importance of volunteers – but would like to streamline and help coordinate resources, administrative needs and provide structure in Colorado (search and rescue in the hinterland) system.”

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