Colorado’s Search and Rescue Teams Are Overworked and Underfunded. A New Law Aims to Fix That.
Senate Bill 168 gave SAR volunteers legal immunity and—hopefully—the money they need to keep hikers, climbers, and paddlers safe.
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It’s a new year—and the busiest search and rescue system in the country is getting a little extra help.
On January 1, a new law took effect in Colorado that provides extra support to the state’s search and rescue teams. Senate Bill 168 transfers the backcountry search and rescue responsibilities of the Department of Local Affairs’ (DOLA) to the division of Parks and Wildlife, which is expected to provide teams with a bigger budget.
The new law also provides volunteers with immunity from civil lawsuits that result from failed missions. And if a volunteer becomes permanently disabled or killed while on duty, the law will also provide the volunteer’s dependents with access to higher education.
Colorado has over 50 different search and rescue teams and 2,800 volunteers, but these teams have struggled to keep up with increasing rescue demands over the past several years. Search and rescue operations are extremely costly to both the organization, and volunteers. A recent study that was published by Colorado Parks and Wildlife showed that Colorado search and rescue teams respond to about 3,600 incidents every year—more than any other state.
According to the report, rescue missions are dependent on local volunteers, who each spend an average of about $1,500 of their own money annually on equipment, gas, and similar expenses. The report also estimated that combined rescue costs and volunteer time amounts to about $21 million every year. These trends prompted lawmakers to create a task force to identify ways to support future rescue operations.
“We are seeing the federal and state government out there promoting tourism, which is great. We need these visitors in our mountain economies. But we need to recognize there are costs associated with these things,” Jeff Sparhawk, the executive director of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association, stated last year. “The way the support system works right now, it can be difficult to provide the level of services needed in some of these communities.”
A shift in management, and new funding could be allocated to upgrade equipment, to provide a new worker’s compensation program, and to offer mental health services for volunteers. It may also support studies regarding the use of helicopters for rescue missions and employ a data analyst to track trends and improvements to search and rescue programs across the state.
According to Sparhawk, Senate Bill 168 is the state’s response to a strained resource.
“In reality, this is just bringing us up on par with all the other emergency responders,” he told lawmakers last April at a state Capitol hearing. “We’re not asking for something special. We still are trying to make it so we run very cost-effective, very efficient, very safe operations.”
In addition to Senate Bill 168, Colorado search and rescue teams will acquire financial support from the Keep Colorado Wild parks pass. The pass is now available at a discounted rate to Colorado residents who register their vehicles within the state. It provides annual access to Colorado state parks, and may help fund the state’s search and rescue teams to the tune of as much as $2.5 million.
Sparhawk identified this new legislature as a good “first step” in bolstering search and rescue resources. Teams across Colorado still lack sufficient volunteers to accommodate growing demands. And since search and rescue teams don’t charge those they’re rescuing, these programs often struggle to fund rescue efforts.