Denver, CO

Colorado search and rescue nonprofits pushing for two bills that would increase funds, mental health services for teams

Steven Bonifazi
Bear Lake Trailhead, Estes Park, United StatesPeter Pryharski/Unsplash

By Steven Bonifazi

(DENVER, Colo.) Colorado search and rescue organizations are advocating and encouraging residents to support two bills that would provide support and funding to state search and rescue teams as state legislatures consider the bills.

Senate Bill 245, titled "Backcountry Search and Rescue in Colorado", aims to define backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) in statute, requiring a study by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) to address a multitude of issues that exist within the volunteer-based BSAR program from the structure of search and rescue to funding. The bill would ultimately provide some funding for equipment and reimbursement for BSAR operations by local, state and nonprofit organizations involved in BSAR.

"We are part of the outdoor recreation economy in Colorado, through outdoor tourism, which is a huge part of Colorado's economy and we can't have it without some sort of backcountry search and rescue," said Anna Debattiste, public information officer for Summit County Rescue Group in Summit County and for Colorado Search and Rescue Association, a membership organization of Colorado search and rescue teams.

Sheriffs are statutorily responsible for BSAR but they don't have the resources to provide that service on their own. You have to have fire departments, ambulance services, and in a state like this, you gotta have backcountry search and rescue."

The bill would also focus on the mental health needs of BSAR organizations and their personnel through the creation of a pilot program that would provide BSAR responders mental health services. As of now, there is no organized system of mental health resources for rescuers, who often perform a handful of body recoveries.

The current system which search and rescue (SAR) operates under has been in use for 70 years and has experienced no failures yet, as no SAR teams went out of service during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the number of recreationists increasing, according to Debattiste. Most teams within the state are 501C nonprofits, meaning they pay out of pocket for personal gear and equipment, existing mainly on donations and grants.

The study by the DNR tied to the bill will look at out-of-pocket personal expenses, some of the stress and injury issues behind rescuing and how to create a system that would make SAR more sustainable as the numbers of recreationists and rescues continue to rise. With more people getting outdoors and recreating, the chances of SAR missions increase.

Senate Bill 249, titled "Keep Colorado Wild Annual Pass" would provide annual funding up to 2.5 million for SAR teams while simultaneously making state parks more accessible, potentially increasing diversity as talks of lack of diversity in the outdoors could do with economic disadvantages. The annual state parks and public lands access pass is currently $80, and through the bill, the pass would be cut down to somewhere between $20 and $40, according to Debattiste.

"You would automatically buy the pass with your car registration, unless you opt-out," Debattiste said. "Even at half of the current price or lower, that gives us extra funding which first goes ($32 million) to Colorado parks, the next $2.5 million goes to search and rescue and $1 million to the Colorado Avalanche and Information Center (CAIC)."

The first committee hearing for both bills with the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry is taking place May 13. In order to advocate for the passing of the bills, Jeff Sparhawk, president of Colorado Search and Rescue Association will testify at the hearing, in addition to Executive Director of the DNR, Dan Gibbs, rescuers and rescue victims.

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