Garfield County rescue unit sidelined by November?
Glenwood Springs correspondent
Aspen, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – The call came in about 12:45 p.m. Monday.
A man was injured and needed help in the northern Garfield County backcountry near the Rio Blanco County line.
Garfield County Search and Rescue Inc., a registered nonprofit entity comprising more than 30 volunteers who work in cooperation with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office, was called by the agency to respond and assist.
However, come Oct. 31, the volunteers for Garfield County Search and Rescue Inc. will likely not be able to respond to any more calls, even if they want to.
Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario recently changed the application requirements for active and future volunteers for the organization. The 39-page application for new volunteers asks personal questions in regard to financial history, loan balances of any kind – including a home mortgage – complete medical history, drug screen and history, and driving and criminal history, among other stipulations. Another section of the application states that “marital status, prior marriages, number of dependents, related to how the applicant handles those responsibilities will also be discussed.”
The application also asks applicants to list magazine subscriptions, and sexual and gambling activities.
Current members must fill out a nine-page application that asks for much of the same information by 5 p.m. Oct. 30 if they want to remain with the organization.
The changes prompted former Search and Rescue Inc. president Dave Pruett and four other members to resign. Now, Pruett is concerned with what could potentially happen come Oct. 31 if no volunteers, or very few, decide to go through with the application process, leaving the team’s resources depleted.
“As a general citizen I would probably be concerned,” Pruett said. “Because who is going to go out there and perform the duty that is required? Is [Vallario] going to ask his deputies to go into the mountains and perform the duties that they are not trained to do?”
Sheriff Vallario has said that the issue is not a search and rescue issue, but a volunteer issue. And changing the volunteer requirements is in the best interest of the Sheriff’s Office, who is responsible for search and rescue, and for the citizens of the county.
However, Vallario did not want to discuss the situation when asked specifically about a contingency plan come the end of October, if the sheriff’s office Search and Rescue sees a decline in volunteers, and how the sheriff’s office would deal with a serious search and rescue operation.
“I will not discuss the volunteer issue,” he said. “Our volunteer programs are fine and once again, this is not about search and rescue.”
Garfield County Search and Rescue Inc. can still operate without an agreement with the sheriff’s office, but they will not be able to respond to just any rescue call. It’s the sheriff’s office that decides to call in the services of Search and Rescue Inc., according to Howard Paul, public affairs manager for the Colorado Search and Rescue board.
“Search and Rescue is the responsibility of the sheriff,” Paul said. “If he chooses to not call them, they are not going to be able to respond.”
However, Paul said that Search and Rescue Inc. could be able to respond to calls if requested by other agencies, as long as there is no agreement with Garfield County that stipulates the organization cannot.
The same goes for Garfield County.
“If the sheriff chooses not to call Garfield County [Search and Rescue Inc.], the same function has to be performed by someone,” Paul said. “Odds are he is going to call upon a neighboring team from another county.”
But going into one of the busiest seasons for search and rescue services – hunting season – Pruett is concerned with what potentially could happen if there is a limited number of volunteers to help out.
“It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when a call comes in,” Pruett said. “It’s an unfortunate situation when you have volunteers that are willing to help out.”
Paul said that many of Colorado’s 64 search and rescue teams are individual nonprofit corporations existing independently from their respective county’s sheriff’s office. But each one of them provides service to the county through an agreement with the sheriff’s office as any other specialized corporation would. The difference is that search and rescue teams do not charge for their services but may receive some form of support, like equipment, unlike other corporations the county may do business with.
San Miguel County is the only search and rescue team in the state that uses a combination of paid sheriff’s office staff and volunteers on its team, according to Paul.
While Paul and Pruett could only speculate on what could happen come November, it was their assumption that the local fire departments or the Garfield County All Hazards Response Team could see an increase in demand for responding on search and rescue calls.
“I don’t know what is going to happen if a call comes in,” Pruett said. “But, hopefully he’s got enough resources to respond that won’t cost the taxpayers too much money.”
Monday’s rescue mission ended with Garfield County Search and Rescue Inc. volunteers standing down, and not responding because a Life Flight helicopter from Grand Junction was able to reach the man.
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