Through the passage of Senate Bill 21-245, Colorado Parks and Wildlife was directed to conduct a study with stakeholders to identify challenges within the existing volunteer-based Backcountry Search and Rescue (BSAR) program in Colorado. For more information, read the recently released Backcountry Search and Rescue Study and Senate Bill 21-245 Fact Sheet.
The study evaluated a number of issues faced by the state’s BSAR system such as coordination structure, workers’ compensation, retirement, compensation and reimbursement, equipment, funding, governmental immunity, training, and public outdoor safety education. The effort also included a detailed statewide survey of BSAR volunteers’ mental and physical health needs, documenting an increased risk of burnout and serious physical and mental health concerns faced by BSAR team members, and a pilot project to address these challenges.
“Our staff was grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with our state partners and reflect on the successes and challenges of BSAR,” said Colorado Parks and Wildlife Director Dan Prenzlow. “This foundational understanding of the current system helped our study team think about innovative ways to modernize our processes and recommend solutions that will advance BSAR moving forward.”
“Coloradans love our mountains and open spaces, but increasing backcountry visitation is, unfortunately, pushing the volunteer responders to their limits and outpacing available funding,” said the Director of Colorado Search and Rescue Association Jeff Sparhawk. “This study is incredibly valuable because it allows us to be proactive and look to the future to create a more sustainable system for all of Colorado.”
On average, Colorado BSAR organizations respond to more than 3,600 search and rescue incidents– more than any other state. At this point, roughly 2,800 unpaid BSAR responders, who serve on almost 50 nonprofit BSAR teams, give over 500,000 person-hours annually without compensation for training and responding to BSAR incidents. The study also determined that BSAR volunteers spend an average of $1,587 annually out-of-pocket on equipment, fuel, and other expenses to respond to incidents.
“As those responsible for coordinating BSAR on a local level, additional funding and support from the state level are incredibly helpful to allow our volunteer teams to conduct search and rescue operations,” said Rio Blanco Sheriff Anthony Mazzola. “Collaboration across the state on backcountry safety efforts will help ensure our responders have the equipment they need when venturing into dangerous terrain on rescue missions.”
This newly completed study will fundamentally change how backcountry search and rescue operations are supported by the state and Colorado Parks and Wildlife in future years.