Sheriff benches Mountain Rescue Aspen president |

Sheriff benches Mountain Rescue Aspen president

A group of Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers gather at the Aspen airport for a helicopter training session June 22. The training, which was moved by Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo from the MRA building next to Highway 82 to the airport because of safety concerns, was a factor in the sheriff's decision to curtail MRA President Jeff Edelson's duties, sources said.

Pitkin County Sheriff Joe DiSalvo stripped some authority from the president of Mountain Rescue Aspen earlier this month and removed him from directing future rescue operations.

“Jeff Edelson won’t be an operations guy (anymore),” DiSalvo said last week. “He will focus on running the business side of Mountain Rescue.”

Edelson, who will remain president, can go out into the field with rescue crews and even serve as field leader, but he cannot direct rescue mission operations or request resources, DiSalvo said.

“The (MRA) board and I decided the administrative portion (of his job) is important enough, so Jeff will not be distracted by, say, managing incidents,” he said.

Edelson, however, disputed that characterization in an interview last week.

“I’m still very much involved in operations,” he said. “I’m still directing operations.”

Edelson also said he remains one of Mountain Rescue Aspen’s rotating, on-call rescue leaders who direct individual rescue operations and tell the incident commander from the Sheriff’s Office what resources are necessary for a particular mission.

DiSalvo said that is not the case.

“Jeff is not still a rescue leader,” he said. “He cannot be a rescue leader.”

The dispute between the men has been brewing at least since Edelson assumed the MRA presidency nearly four years ago, according to a source in the Sheriff’s Office who requested anonymity.

“(Edelson’s) style is deceitful,” the source said. “You’re never getting the full story. He always has an angle … and that’s not trustworthy.”

Two other Sheriff’s Office sources who also requested anonymity told the Times the same thing. One of those sources called Edelson “manipulative.”

Edelson said Friday he doesn’t feel the “deceitful” comment is accurate.

“I’m an honest person,” he said. “I give people the full story. My job is to represent the team. If they feel I’m not giving the full story, then they should come and talk to me about it.”

DiSalvo declined to comment further about his dealings with Edelson, though he praised MRA as a first-class organization and resource for the community and visitors.

“Mountain Rescue Aspen is the best mountain rescue in the state of Colorado,” DiSalvo said. “They are one of the hardest working and most used.

“They have probably saved more lives — with the exception of the Aspen Ambulance District — than any other agency in the valley.”

The sources inside the Sheriff’s Office repeated those sentiments and said the only person at MRA they have an issue with is Edelson.

“The problem is him,” one source said. “We are fine with 49 out of the 50 members. And that’s the hard part about this is that one person can have such a negative pull. We haven’t had that before.”

Further, the sources said Edelson was warned in the past about his deceptive behavior, but it kept occurring. His recent demotion from leading rescue operations is the direct result of a helicopter training session held at the Aspen airport June 22, two sources said.

The training, which involved landing two Flight for Life helicopters, was initially scheduled to take place at the Mountain Rescue Aspen building east of the Aspen Business Center and next to Highway 82 during rush hour. Edelson previously had been told in no uncertain terms not to land helicopters next to the building, a Sheriff’s Office source said.

DiSalvo found out the training with the two helicopters was going to happen from an Aspen Times reporter.

“Now you’ve upset me,” DiSalvo said at the time, though he declined to discuss the matter further.

The training was later moved to the airport after a meeting with Edelson, DiSalvo and other Sheriff’s Office personnel.

DiSalvo said last week he knew previously that one helicopter was going to land at the building, but did not know about the second and did not know it was scheduled to happen at about 5 p.m.

“I have a real concern with two helicopters kicking up debris on rush-hour traffic in the middle of June,” DiSalvo said. “(Also) the property they land on doesn’t belong to Pitkin County or Mountain Rescue Aspen. The city of Aspen owns it. I cannot authorize it.”

Edelson admitted Mountain Rescue neglected to inform DiSalvo of the helicopter landings, which led to tension within the organization but not with the sheriff, he said.

“It never got back to Joe that we were doing that,” Edelson said. “He doesn’t like to be surprised by things. He heard about it in the wrong way.”

However, Edelson said the Sheriff’s Office isn’t normally in the loop on such things.

“We don’t call the sheriff and tell him about any of our trainings,” Edelson said.

DiSalvo took issue with that statement.

“All training Mountain Rescue Aspen does outside their cabin must be approved by the sheriff,” he said. “The only thing they can do without the sheriff’s say-so is training in their building.”

The reason for that is because Pitkin County’s insurance covers members of Mountain Rescue Aspen during trainings, which means DiSalvo is the person responsible if someone is injured, he said.

“I have never said ‘no’ to a training,” DiSalvo said.

By state law, county sheriffs are responsible for all search-and-rescue operations.

During a rescue operation, a commander or patrol director from the Sheriff’s Office serves as incident commander and decides when to call mountain rescue, when to deploy them and when to pull them back, DiSalvo said. A rescue leader from Mountain Rescue Aspen works closely with the incident commander and tells that commander what resources MRA needs and how best to deploy them, he said.

“The Sheriff’s Office is always in charge,” DiSalvo said. “They are a resource to the sheriff in the state of Colorado. They are a branch of the Sheriff’s Office and are under my responsibility.”

In an email sent Thursday, Edelson partially agreed.

“(DiSalvo’s) control over MRA solely lies during mission management as the missions (are) his,” Edelson wrote.

However, DiSalvo’s control ends there, he said.

“MRA is a completely separate … organization with an agreement to provide search and rescue services for the county/sheriff,” Edelson wrote in the email. “Joe does not have the ability to alter my (or any other MRA organizational positions) duties or direct how MRA does business.”

The sheriff does not have to use MRA and can instead call on other mountain-rescue teams to perform rescue operations, a Sheriff’s Office source said.

“It’s just like a towing company we might use,” the source said. “We can call another one.”

Besides Edelson, other members of the Mountain Rescue Aspen board declined to comment about the situation, according to Edelson’s email. Other members of Mountain Rescue Aspen contacted by the Times either did not know about the rift between Edelson and DiSalvo or would not comment.

Longtime MRA member David Swersky, however, did agree to comment about Edelson, though he refused to talk about the relationship between MRA and the Sheriff’s Office.

“(Edelson) has overseen the construction and management of our new facility,” said Swersky, a 37-year member of the organization. “He’s elevated medical training far beyond what we had in the past.

“He’s the most effective operations director during rescues of anyone I’ve ever seen.”

Swersky, who remains an MRA rescue leader, said he’s seen other controversies with sheriffs over the years and that “things always work out in the end.”

“Timid people don’t generally join Mountain Rescue,” he said. “These are 50 type-A personalities.”

Edelson is serving his fourth one-year term as president and said Friday he isn’t going to run for re-election.

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