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Professional Search & Rescue

Original Post
Chris Johnson · · Boulder, CO · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 0

I'd love to get some takes on the feasibility of professional search & rescue squads.

With the ever-increasing volume of participants in a variety of outdoor pursuits, my guess is the need for search & rescue services is increasing. The vast majority of SAR teams are staffed by volunteers, which is fantastic that these people are willing to donate their time and money for training, practice, and helping people. But as the need continues to creep up, it doesn't seem right or fair to continue to rely on unpaid people who have extensive training to save people. The consequences for SAR team members don't stop when the rescue is over.

Having the rescued party pay for the cost of a rescue is one controversial option. I'd agree that anything that discourages people from potentially reaching out for help isn't a great solution.

What I do think might work is developing a professional team through the various offices of outdoor recreation that more and more states are starting. States with robust outdoor offerings (CO, WY, UT, WA, OR, CA, MT, NH, among others) are those with the most need. I'd argue that part of what draws people to these states are the recreation opportunities, and therefore, a dedicated SAR team is in the public interest. I don't think it would be too hard to get corporate backers to either donate gear or money to fund the team, and to use some tax money to pay salaries, fund additional training, etc. It would be possible to make a career out of SAR, including benefits, continuing education, and healthcare to address injuries both physical and mental. States could use it as a point of differentiation when trying to attract tourism dollars.

Anthony L · · Central Washington · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 0

Sounds like an alright idea, but the SAR in our area is awesome and has enough people that a call rarely goes unanswered or sees a delayed response.

Ron O · · middle of nowhere, southern… · Joined Apr 2018 · Points: 0

In theory you are right and I DO think people who do stupid shit should pay for their mistakes the way a person who accidentally starts a forest fire is liable.

But good luck with that. Mandatory insurance like drivers perhaps?

Chris Johnson · · Boulder, CO · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 0
Anthony L wrote: Sounds like an alright idea, but the SAR in our area is awesome and has enough people that a call rarely goes unanswered or sees a delayed response.

Nor here. The point is more we are relying on these people who are donating their time and money and lives for this service that very well could and should be paid. What happens when 1. people no longer want to be so generous with their time and money? 2. need outpaces resources?

Mostly, I think it's a little inappropriate that the view is "they do it because they love it" or something along those lines, when at the end of the day, it's a critical service that deserves to be compensated. 
Chris Johnson · · Boulder, CO · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 0
Ron O wrote: In theory you are right and I DO think people who do stupid shit should pay for their mistakes the way a person who accidentally starts a forest fire is liable.

But good luck with that. Mandatory insurance like drivers perhaps?

Ya, there's definitely a line between "we were prepared, but things went wrong and now we need help" and "we were in way over our heads and needing to get rescued was the only logical outcome of this situation". That line gets increasingly fuzzy towards the middle. The tricky part on making people pay is who decides which side of the line any situation falls on. 

And again, anything that makes people hesitate on calling for help is a bad thing. A human life is worth more than a couple hundred bucks, or even a couple thousand. As it is, these volunteer groups are able to survive on donations. I think by spreading the cost out over a larger population, the impact won't really be felt by anyone.

Or heck, put a small tax increase on outdoor goods to help fund it. The people buying cams, skis, avalanche beacons, ropes, etc. are most likely in the user group that may need to get rescued. That way, you keep the costs confined to those who may actually use the service.
curt86iroc · · Lakewood, CO · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 74

things are already changing in some states...

https://www.wyoleg.gov/Legislation/2019/HB0246

Long Ranger · · Boulder, CO · Joined Jan 2014 · Points: 331

There's a lot of options. I wouldn't mind seeing a professional SAR team (in that they get paid a living wage). It could be similar to a fire department, where it's paid in part by taxes. You could tax outdoor gear (climbing rope, guns, fishing gear), but then there's a problem that online orders probably won't count.

Chris, have you talked to the local RMR? We have one of the best SAR groups in the country.

Getting rescue insurance for a place like the Alps is pretty usual, right? I hear stories of choppers flying around even, making sure people are OK. The amount of resources those rescue companies have seems incredible. There is/was a pretty Swiss (as in boring) show on the Netflix about them. Not sure if that would work over here, though. Somehow, many public services made private seems to corrupt the service itself *coughCaliforniacough*

Artem Vasilyev · · Portland, OR · Joined Mar 2014 · Points: 85
Ron O wrote: In theory you are right and I DO think people who do stupid shit should pay for their mistakes the way a person who accidentally starts a forest fire is liable.

But good luck with that. Mandatory insurance like drivers perhaps?

I like how your assumption is that people who need to be rescued "do stupid shit". Ironically enough, climbers with haughty attitudes like yours seem to be the least self-aware and most accident prone of them all. 

Mike Brady · · Van Diesel, OR · Joined Jul 2014 · Points: 753
Artem Vasilyev wrote:

I like how your assumption is that people who need to be rescued "do stupid shit". Ironically enough, climbers with haughty attitudes like yours seem to be the least self-aware and most accident prone of them all. 

......well some people DO some pretty stupid shit

Dan Daugherty · · Virginia Beach, VA · Joined Aug 2018 · Points: 5
Chris Johnson wrote: I'd love to get some takes on the feasibility of professional search & rescue squads.

With the ever-increasing volume of participants in a variety of outdoor pursuits, my guess is the need for search & rescue services is increasing. The vast majority of SAR teams are staffed by volunteers, which is fantastic that these people are willing to donate their time and money for training, practice, and helping people. But as the need continues to creep up, it doesn't seem right or fair to continue to rely on unpaid people who have extensive training to save people. The consequences for SAR team members don't stop when the rescue is over.

Having the rescued party pay for the cost of a rescue is one controversial option. I'd agree that anything that discourages people from potentially reaching out for help isn't a great solution.

What I do think might work is developing a professional team through the various offices of outdoor recreation that more and more states are starting. States with robust outdoor offerings (CO, WY, UT, WA, OR, CA, MT, NH, among others) are those with the most need. I'd argue that part of what draws people to these states are the recreation opportunities, and therefore, a dedicated SAR team is in the public interest. I don't think it would be too hard to get corporate backers to either donate gear or money to fund the team, and to use some tax money to pay salaries, fund additional training, etc. It would be possible to make a career out of SAR, including benefits, continuing education, and healthcare to address injuries both physical and mental. States could use it as a point of differentiation when trying to attract tourism dollars.

My background here as a former volunteer SAR Tech and Paramedic for a little over a decade is where I'm going to base my response. As a medic, I was also the commanding officer of our rescue squad that was averaging close to 39k calls for 911 service a year servicing about 300k people. I started and we were 100% volunteer on the street from EMT's to supervisors with a paid admin office of about 10 folks managing all the paperwork needs to stay in compliance. We also had a hybrid of folks paid and volunteer who handled recruitment. Recruitment and retention were the biggest keys to keeping a good workforce and is overlooked by a lot of volunteer orgs.

Just like the SAR teams I've met on travels, we were responsible for all fund raising to purchase any equipment and we relied heavily on donations from the community. We were also able to apply for grants funded by tax dollars.  We never had issue getting what we needed, but bells and whistles were few and far between. Training was budgeted from the money we raised. Whenever a provider left, there was/is always someone new getting ready to be released. You'll always find someone willing to donate their time. I'm counting the days until we move out to New Mexico to be close to the mountains again and jump on a SAR team knowing I won't be paid for that.

Paid or volunteer, we are still be professionals and need to maintain our skills. The things I bolded above about CEU's, healthcare, using tax/tourism dollars for funding, corporate funding are all available and hopefully used by all volunteer and not just paid orgs. It was my experience that at least some of the SAR teams in Utah and Idaho are making use of some of these things with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Full disclosure, my SAR experience was all urban search and not wilderness but that shouldn't matter since this is about how to manage a team and not specifics of how to search. We also did end up going a hybrid route for EMS of mostly volunteers with augmentation of paid supervisors and medics to backfill when it became obvious we didn't have enough staffed ambulances.

I've never looked into this, but are requests for rescue being denied due to lack of personnel? It's a good discussion to start but we'd need lots of stats to determine if there is an actual need to change a system that is working pretty well. One thing that folks who may not have volunteered like this may not understand is the amount of fulfillment the volunteer gets after a successful event. I often had higher satisfaction from my 20-30 hours a week volunteering than I did from my paying job, so there is that.
Tom Steinbrecher · · Salt Lake City, UT · Joined Sep 2017 · Points: 0
Long Ranger wrote: There's a lot of options. I wouldn't mind seeing a professional SAR team (in that they get paid a living wage). It could be similar to a fire department, where it's paid in part by taxes. You could tax outdoor gear (climbing rope, guns, fishing gear), but then there's a problem that online orders probably won't count.

Chris, have you talked to the local RMR? We have one of the best SAR groups in the country.

Getting rescue insurance for a place like the Alps is pretty usual, right? I hear stories of choppers flying around even, making sure people are OK. The amount of resources those rescue companies have seems incredible. There is/was a pretty Swiss (as in boring) show on the Netflix about them. Not sure if that would work over here, though. Somehow, many public services made private seems to corrupt the service itself *coughCaliforniacough*

Had a friend call the rescue folks because I was overdue on a climb in the Alps this summer, was crazy to realize the helicopter we saw flying nearby was doing a checkup on us. It was honestly pretty amazing to see how dialed those rescue services are.

Kevin Mokracek · · Burbank · Joined Apr 2012 · Points: 290

Most rescues in California already are performed by paid rescuers.   They are supplemented by volunteer teams at times, mostly on long drawn out searches.   Southern California is covered by whatever municipalities the area happens to fall  under, CHP, fire departments, sheriff departments, Cal Fire etc....  Further north it’s the same but with the addition of the Navy rescue teams.   I think your idea may work for more rural states where everything is volunteer to begin with.   The problem I see with private for profit rescue teams is an unwillingness for the victims to pull the trigger and ask for a rescue because of the cost.    This could be good in that it deters frivolous rescues but it also has a bad side that is obvious.  

Anthony L · · Central Washington · Joined Jan 2015 · Points: 0
Chris Johnson wrote:

Nor here. The point is more we are relying on these people who are donating their time and money and lives for this service that very well could and should be paid. What happens when 1. people no longer want to be so generous with their time and money? 2. need outpaces resources?

Mostly, I think it's a little inappropriate that the view is "they do it because they love it" or something along those lines, when at the end of the day, it's a critical service that deserves to be compensated. 

My community is lucky enough to have so many volunteers that they've limited membership. And any rescues that get to hairy for volunteer SAR just involve the military.


I would personally be super bummed if rescue went way of the private, super expensive, European operations... At least in my area, why try and fix something that is most certainly not broken?
curt86iroc · · Lakewood, CO · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 74
Kevin Mokracek wrote: Most rescues in California already are performed by paid rescuers. 

hmmm not sure about that.... here's a list of all the MRA accredited teams in CA (all volunteer minus the parks):

http://mra.org/all-teams/california-region/​​​
Allen Sanderson · · On the road to perdition · Joined Jul 2007 · Points: 1,188

Rescue insurance does not need to be mandatory nor do rescue organizations need to be paid professionals.

However,  people should be charged for rescues just like one gets charged for an ambulance ride. That is pretty much the rescue model in Europe. It does not differentiate between those doing stupid things and those who are prepared but something goes wrong.  European model works because people get rescue insurance via their membership in an organization. 

Philip Magistro · · Estes Park, CO · Joined Dec 2013 · Points: 0

Interesting, I was discussing this very concept just a few days ago with one of my co-workers.

As someone who works on a professional search and rescue team, I agree with the OP that it is asking a lot of volunteers to provide SAR services, especially in high volume, technical areas like the Front Range.  Everyone wants to get slung in helicopters or climb a cliff to save someone, but most SAR isn't that sexy and it all has long term effects on the rescuers. I am very grateful to be compensated for rescue work.  It would be incredibly difficult to maintain the level of professionalism and proficiency necessary by training after work a few times per month.

That said, the volunteer agencies locally do an excellent job.  

Kevin Mokracek wrote:...The problem I see with private for profit rescue teams is an unwillingness for the victims to pull the trigger and ask for a rescue because of the cost...
I agree with this, but would also suggest that a compensated, professional rescue team could (and I would argue, should) be structured as a not-for-profit agency.  

Interested to see where this conversation leads.
Chris Johnson · · Boulder, CO · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 0
Dan Daugherty wrote:

My background here as a former volunteer SAR Tech and Paramedic for a little over a decade is where I'm going to base my response. As a medic, I was also the commanding officer of our rescue squad that was averaging close to 39k calls for 911 service a year servicing about 300k people. I started and we were 100% volunteer on the street from EMT's to supervisors with a paid admin office of about 10 folks managing all the paperwork needs to stay in compliance. We also had a hybrid of folks paid and volunteer who handled recruitment. Recruitment and retention were the biggest keys to keeping a good workforce and is overlooked by a lot of volunteer orgs.

Just like the SAR teams I've met on travels, we were responsible for all fund raising to purchase any equipment and we relied heavily on donations from the community. We were also able to apply for grants funded by tax dollars.  We never had issue getting what we needed, but bells and whistles were few and far between. Training was budgeted from the money we raised. Whenever a provider left, there was/is always someone new getting ready to be released. You'll always find someone willing to donate their time. I'm counting the days until we move out to New Mexico to be close to the mountains again and jump on a SAR team knowing I won't be paid for that.

Paid or volunteer, we are still be professionals and need to maintain our skills. The things I bolded above about CEU's, healthcare, using tax/tourism dollars for funding, corporate funding are all available and hopefully used by all volunteer and not just paid orgs. It was my experience that at least some of the SAR teams in Utah and Idaho are making use of some of these things with varying degrees of effectiveness.

Full disclosure, my SAR experience was all urban search and not wilderness but that shouldn't matter since this is about how to manage a team and not specifics of how to search. We also did end up going a hybrid route for EMS of mostly volunteers with augmentation of paid supervisors and medics to backfill when it became obvious we didn't have enough staffed ambulances.

I've never looked into this, but are requests for rescue being denied due to lack of personnel? It's a good discussion to start but we'd need lots of stats to determine if there is an actual need to change a system that is working pretty well. One thing that folks who may not have volunteered like this may not understand is the amount of fulfillment the volunteer gets after a successful event. I often had higher satisfaction from my 20-30 hours a week volunteering than I did from my paying job, so there is that.

Love the insights here. Wasn't trying to indicate that volunteers are less professional (they most definitely are not), but more that they deserve to be paid for the valuable service they offer. I'd love to hear your thoughts on if you had the choice between doing this as a volunteer vs making it your full time profession and if you would still enjoy it. I think that's where the disconnect is for me. I've been trying to find a paying job I love enough that I would do it for free. My current job pays well but definitely doesn't motivate me. If I could ski patrol in the winter and do SAR in the summer and still be able to afford a fairly middle class life, I'd jump on board. 

curt86iroc · · Lakewood, CO · Joined Dec 2014 · Points: 74
Allen Sanderson wrote:
However,  people should be charged for rescues just like one gets charged for an ambulance ride. 

https://www.coloradosarboard.org/csrb-documents/Refusing%20SAR%20Help.pdf

Chris Johnson · · Boulder, CO · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 0
Philip Magistro wrote: Interesting, I was discussing this very concept just a few days ago with one of my co-workers.

As someone who works on a professional search and rescue team, I agree with the OP that it is asking a lot of volunteers to provide SAR services, especially in high volume, technical areas like the Front Range.  Everyone wants to get slung in helicopters or climb a cliff to save someone, but most SAR isn't that sexy and it all has long term effects on the rescuers. I am very grateful to be compensated for rescue work.  It would be incredibly difficult to maintain the level of professionalism and proficiency necessary by training after work a few times per month.

That said, the volunteer agencies locally do an excellent job.  

I agree with this, but would also suggest that a compensated, professional rescue team could (and I would argue, should) be structured as a not-for-profit agency.  

Interested to see where this conversation leads.

To both Philip and Kevin, ya I was definitely imagining a non-profit or municipal SAR, not for profit. Just meant professional in that they were being paid for their time.

Chris Johnson · · Boulder, CO · Joined Nov 2015 · Points: 0
Anthony L wrote:

My community is lucky enough to have so many volunteers that they've limited membership. And any rescues that get to hairy for volunteer SAR just involve the military.


I would personally be super bummed if rescue went way of the private, super expensive, European operations... At least in my area, why try and fix something that is most certainly not broken?

Interesting, I had just been assuming that rescues in Europe were covered similar to the States, but from a little blurb here, seems that's not really the case. I guess a large pool of people paying insurance that defrays cost of rescue is at least similar to what I'd propose, though executed differently. 

And while the system may still be working, that doesn't mean it can't work better or more equitably. The system is broken for people who would like to be a search and rescuer but can't afford to donate their time, or pay for training, or gear. The system also breaks down if no one wants to volunteer. Here on the Front Range, we also have SAR teams who only accept applications once a year or once every few years because they have so many people willing and able to help. That isn't the case everywhere. 
Dan Daugherty · · Virginia Beach, VA · Joined Aug 2018 · Points: 5
Chris Johnson wrote:

Love the insights here. Wasn't trying to indicate that volunteers are less professional (they most definitely are not), but more that they deserve to be paid for the valuable service they offer. I'd love to hear your thoughts on if you had the choice between doing this as a volunteer vs making it your full time profession and if you would still enjoy it. I think that's where the disconnect is for me. I've been trying to find a paying job I love enough that I would do it for free. My current job pays well but definitely doesn't motivate me. If I could ski patrol in the winter and do SAR in the summer and still be able to afford a fairly middle class life, I'd jump on board. 

I turned down multiple job offers to go paid for two reasons. One, the salary at the time would have been less than half what I was being paid to write software and two, I watched a lot of my friends do the switch and they lost a lot of the enthusiasm they had as volunteers. It became a job and was much less fun. Granted, even though we were all professionals and the expectation of the public was the same of me as a volunteer and them as career medics, it's "just different." I can't really explain it, other than telling you of my experience and why I personally chose to not go that route. If my cost of living had been doable with some cushion, I would have considered it more.

Guideline #1: Don't be a jerk.

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