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The pandemic is exposing the vulnerabilities of America’s search and rescue model.
When search and rescue volunteers in Utah’s Washington County received three separate calls for help on a recent Sunday, every available member of the team was deployed in response. As they tended to injured hikers and mountain bikers, things quickly went from bad to worse.
“Before we were done with the third call, we got a fourth one, and five minutes after that we got a fifth one,” said Sgt. Darrell Cashin, who serves as the county sheriff’s liaison to volunteer rescue teams in southwest Utah.
Cashin was forced to split off team members to respond to the new situations, while also deploying sheriff’s deputies, who lacked technical rescue training. Responders made it through the day, but Cashin — along with many other search and rescue, or SAR, leaders across the country — warns that the pandemic is compounding already significant challenges.
Nearly all search and rescue missions in the United States are handled by volunteer teams, who mostly pay for their own equipment and work under a patchwork of guidelines and government oversight that can vary widely by state.
The pandemic has led some older and higher-risk members to stay home, while others who have lost work or changed jobs no longer have the money or flexibility to deploy. And the need to postpone or cancel in-person training means fewer new volunteers, accelerating a long-term problem. The pandemic also has forced teams to adjust rescue practices for social distancing and buy protective equipment such as masks.
“We've been very taxed,” Cashin said. “When COVID came out, I really thought our rescues were going to drop through the floor. But we're actually having a record year at this point, with a diminished capacity to respond. It was like the floodgates opened. It's been rescue after rescue after rescue, and it's not stopped.”
In response, lawmakers in several states are considering proposals ranging from providing state funding for programs and workers’ compensation insurance for volunteers to charging people for their rescues.
A Long-Building Problem
For several years, rescuers in many parts of the country have seen a dramatic uptick in calls for help. That’s in part because more Americans are going outside; the National Park Service has seen more than 300 million visitors each of the last five years, the highest numbers on record.
And in its 2018 visitation report, the latest available, the U.S. Forest Service noted an increase of nearly 1 million visitors per year over each of the last five years to a new high of 150 million.
Many of the newcomers to public lands are inexperienced and lack the appropriate gear, skills or fitness for major excursions. SAR leaders say they often have to rescue hikers who become lost when their phone loses its signal or dies, or who try to summit a mountain they saw on Instagram without researching the terrain or weather.
“The Adirondacks have been getting hammered every year,” said John Bulmer, president of Adirondack Mountain Rescue, a volunteer SAR team in upstate New York. “[Rescue calls] are just higher and higher and higher. You just see really bad choices. They show up with one water bottle from the store and a pair of sneakers.”
In recent years, rescue crews in Boulder, Colorado, have seen their call volumes climb by about 20% annually. Rescues in the Seattle area have nearly doubled over the past 10 years, reaching nearly 200 last year.
In southwest Utah, crews that were taking 50 to 60 calls a year less than a decade ago took 130 last year.
“We're keeping pace but we definitely see the writing on the wall,” said Jeff Sparhawk, a member of the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group in Boulder County and the president of the Colorado Search and Rescue Association. “To ask volunteers to get out of work 150 times, that's not sustainable.”
As the need for rescuers increases, many SAR teams have been losing members to attrition. Most volunteers pay thousands of dollars to equip themselves, and they commit many hours to rigorous training and must be prepared to respond without warning.
“The person who volunteers has to have a job that is very flexible, lets them go at a moment’s notice — they could be gone for an indeterminate amount of time — and have a certain amount of discretionary cash,” said Chris Boyer, executive director of the National Association For Search And Rescue, a Virginia-based nonprofit. “They're paying for their own training, their own uniforms, their own gas.”
These requirements have made it especially difficult for younger members, who are often less financially secure, to fill the thinning ranks of SAR teams.
“There's an age gap,” said Jennifer Brenes, president of King County Search and Rescue in Washington state. “It’s expensive to do this. We’re keeping things afloat, but at the current pace, we will not be able to keep up with the demands of the job.”
Nearly every challenge facing the search and rescue community has been made worse by the pandemic and the economic meltdown.
SAR leaders say they’ve rescued many people who traveled to the wilderness to escape strict urban lockdowns. Sparhawk said several Colorado teams are seeing call volumes at all-time highs, and Utah’s Washington County is on pace to far exceed previous records.
Washington state, despite a slowdown in calls in March and April, is set to exceed last year’s total, thanks to an ongoing spike in rescues as public lands have reopened.
Leaders reported that some of their members have lost work or switched jobs, leaving them unable to deploy. The SAR members most likely to be available, retirees, also face the highest risk from COVID-19.
“We have volunteers who are high-risk themselves or have a high-risk individual in their house, and they're just flat-out not responding,” Brenes said.
Crew leaders say their biggest fear is one of their members testing positive for COVID-19. Brenes cited a recent mission that required 40 volunteers; if one of them had tested positive, all 40 would have had to quarantine for 14 days.
Teams have had to decide whether to continue carpooling — the most efficient response tactic — or drive separately to maintain social distancing. Many groups have scrambled to acquire personal protective equipment for their members, and they still face challenges in the field. In Utah, responders sweat through their masks in about 20 minutes in the desert heat.
“We're up close and personal with the patient and other rescuers,” said Colorado’s Sparhawk. “Some of the masks are really hard to breathe through when you’re doing rigorous physical activity at high elevation. … We could lose significant portions of teams very quickly.”
Meanwhile, many crucial team activities have been put on hold to observe social distancing guidelines. Being a SAR volunteer involves constant training, and many states and organizations have had to extend certification deadlines so members can stay in the field.
“You can't teach proper rigging techniques online,” said Bulmer, the New York SAR leader. “I see that being an issue in a year or two when you've got some turnover in teams and you don't have eligible, deployable people.”
The biggest blow, though, could be an acceleration of the attrition trend. Without the ability to train together, many teams can’t bring on new volunteers.
“The [Colorado] teams that were planning to have a new member class this year, all of them have canceled that; 2020 is essentially no new members,” Sparhawk said. “It's limiting our efforts to fill the ranks.”
The financial challenges facing current and prospective volunteers could limit participation as well.
“Recruitment is very, very difficult for us now,” said Bill Gillespie, president of the Washington State Search and Rescue Volunteer Advisory Council. “We're anticipating, over the next year, we're going to see a downturn in the number of people remaining with teams or coming out for teams.”
Finding New Models
SAR leaders are looking for new ways to stay afloat. Many have posted educational signs near trailheads and organized workshops for novice recreationists to help them stay out of trouble. Other teams have tried to increase fundraising, a challenge amid a nationwide recession.
Some wonder if the current SAR model is sustainable. This year, Colorado lawmakers considered a bill that would have directed the state to study and review its search and rescue operations, while creating a pilot program to provide mental health services for rescuers.
Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan, a sponsor of the bill, said it fell victim to pandemic-related budget cuts. She plans to bring the measure back next year, and she’d like the state to consider providing retirement benefits and workers’ compensation insurance to SAR volunteers.
“We’re asking more and more of these guys, and it’s not a sustainable scenario,” Donovan said. “The state needs to have a larger role in supporting these folks who we ask to do so much. … We need to make sure it becomes a program that still makes sense for volunteers.”
Meanwhile, some Washington state legislators proposed a donation-funded grant program earlier this year to help fund local SAR teams. Democratic state Sen. Dean Takko, one of the bill's sponsors, said the bill ran out of time in the state's abbreviated session, but he hopes to revive it next year.
Legislators in Oregon considered a bill this year that would have allowed residents to buy a “search and rescue card” to help fund SAR teams in the state; the plan was modeled on a Colorado program that raised about $80,000 last year.
A few states are even rethinking whether to charge people for their rescues. Most still offer SAR services for free, fearing people will be less likely to seek help if they know it will be accompanied by a hefty bill.
But South Dakota passed a bill earlier this year that allows groups to collect up to $1,000 from the people they rescue. And New Hampshire residents can purchase a Hike Safe Card that protects them from liability for repaying rescue costs.
As states look at different approaches, SAR veterans say they need to find answers fast.
“Search and rescue volunteers are spending millions and millions of dollars every year to be able to volunteer,” Sparhawk said. “Especially now with COVID, where there's a very questionable economy, what disposable income do people have? Will they be able to respond as they have in the past? Can we put gas in the trucks, can we repair equipment?”
Alex Brown is a staff writer for Stateline.