Backcountry rescues can be costly, reimbursement iffy
Anytime someone needs help in the backcountry regions of the upper Roaring Fork Valley, it’s likely that Mountain Rescue Aspen will be there to lend a hand, or a horse, or even a helicopter, depending on the scenario.
Mountain rescues often are costly endeavors, but as mandated by state law, a rescued party is not liable for that expense. A state payout system, managed by the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) and known as the Search and Rescue (SAR) Fund, collects monies from the sale of various licenses, to be reimbursed later to individual rescue teams.
Hunting and fishing licenses, any vehicle licensed through the parks department – like ATVs, snowmobiles and boats – and hiker’s certificates all include a 25-cent surcharge which is funneled into the SAR fund.
Those funds are distributed to rescue teams around the state based on a three-tiered priority system.
“Tier-one” rescues are those in which the rescued individual has contributed to the SAR Fund by purchasing one of the applicable licenses, making the rescue team eligible for immediate reimbursement.
Tom Grady, director of operations for the Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, said tier-one rescues are automatically refunded by the state.
“All you’ve got to do is turn in your receipts for incidents in tier one,” he said.
Tier-two rescues involve parties who have direct family members who contributed to the SAR Fund with the purchase of a license. Tier-two reimbursements are not guaranteed, but funds are awarded if available.
“Since we’re just a volunteer arm for the county, if there are any big expenses involved, the county picks up the tab,” said Debbie Kelly, president of Mountain Rescue Aspen. “Therefore the county gets the money back, we don’t ever see it.”
If any monies remain in the SAR Fund after tier one and two reimbursement requests are met, rescue teams may apply for tier-three monies
“It’s essentially a grant process,” Grady explained. “Any monies that have not been utilized with tier one and tier two go into a pool for tier three.” Tier-three funds aren’t necessarily reimbursements, and can go toward updating equipment and training costs.
The sheriff’s office, acting on behalf of all the rescue agencies within its jurisdiction, each year applies for tier-three grants. About two-thirds of whatever tier-three money the county receives goes to Mountain Rescue Aspen. The remainder is divided among other rescue teams, like those connected to the Aspen Skiing Co.; Snowmass, Basalt and Carbondale fire departments; and specialized rescue teams like the swift-water rescue unit.
“For the last three years, it’s averaged out to be about $10,000 a year,” Grady said. “We’ll get $10,000, but keep in mind we might ask for $50,000.
“Mountain Rescue Aspen gets the biggest piece because they don’t have their own fire district to look to for funding like most of the other rescue teams have,” he added.
But despite the various avenues for rescue reimbursement, Mountain Rescue Aspen hasn’t utilized the available tier-one and tier-two funds in recent history.
“We haven’t had any major-cost rescues recently,” Kelly said. “Since the whole DOLA thing started, we really haven’t been able to take advantage of it. With a lot of rescues, there’s hardly any expenditures. It’s us driving to a trailhead and then hiking in to get someone, and our labor is free.”
Grady said the county absorbs some rescue costs each year, though a specific figure was not available, which are offset by tax dollars.
“Typically, we reserve appealing to the rescue reimbursement funds for big-ticket rescues” – a rescue involving a chartered helicopter, for example, Kelly said.
“We’re lucky because Pitkin County will never say `no’ to us,” she said. “If we need an expensive toy, like a helicopter, because the risk to rescuers is high or the subject’s injuries are severe, we’ll get it, regardless of whether the subjects have the [hiker’s] certificate.”
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