When someone needs to be rescued in the backcountry, who pays?
It turns out, there’s a number of funding sources to keep the La Plata County Search and Rescue team fully operational and ready to go when someone’s in need.
Ron Corkish, president of La Plata County Search and Rescue, said the first thing to keep in mind is that the emergency response crew is comprised entirely of volunteers, and from the outset, that keeps the cost of missions down.
So far this year, the team of about 100 members has logged 5,800 hours on rescue missions.
“Across the state, search and rescue teams are seeing a decrease in new membership and aging of the existing membership,” Corkish said. “But we’re an anomaly. People in Durango want to give and help, and we don’t have those kinds of issues.”
But there are ways to fund La Plata County Search and Rescue efforts, and in some cases, kick some money back to the people who give up their time to save others.
The first is the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card, known as CORSAR – a program that allows people to purchase a card that goes into a fund that the state of Colorado uses to reimburse teams for costs incurred in search and rescue missions.
The card can be purchased for $3 for one year or $12 for five years. In many cases, the card is included in a fishing or boating license.
If a person who requires rescue from the backcountry has purchased the card, local search and rescue teams can apply for reimbursements, which in turn can help fund things like gas and gear. Corkish said La Plata County Search and Rescue receives about $10,000 from the fund each year.
Statewide, however, the CORSAR fund can’t cover everyone’s costs, said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith.
Typically, the fund has about $350,000 available. Yet the 50 rescue teams across the state request reimbursements that can total $1 million.
Smith said Colorado has more search and rescue missions than any other state. He said discussions have begun in the state Legislature to make more money available to search teams.
“We just really have to figure out how to support our teams better,” he said.
And, not everyone who needs saving has a card. In fact, Corkish said about two-thirds of the people who require rescue don’t have the card.
La Plata County Search and Rescue has a few fundraising benefits which help, Corkish said. Every Snowdown, there’s a pancake breakfast. In April, Chimayo Stone Fired Kitchen hosts a benefit for the team, which, over the last eight years, has helped raise Search and Rescue’s contribution to fund a new building.
And out of the 60 or so missions a year, Corkish said about 10 to 15 people rescued, or their family members, will send a check out of gratitude. All added up, the team receives about $5,000 this way.
Another major source of funding has been the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, which started allocating $10,000 a year for Search and Rescue training when Smith was elected in 2014.
Smith said La Plata County Search and Rescue is integral in situations outside backcountry missions. He said the team donated hours during the 416 Fire last summer, for instance.
“I wish La Plata County was in a better financial situation to provide them more,” he said. “They’re unsung heroes that don’t seek the attention they deserve.”
Search and Rescue is at the direction of the Sheriff’s Office, Corkish said. And only the sheriff has the authority to bill a person for their rescue costs – though that rarely happens.
Corkish said in his 30 years involved in search and rescue, he can recall only about four instances in which someone was billed, each time involving a skier who intentionally went out of bounds and put themselves and emergency responders in danger.
“If it’s deemed not an accident, and the result of a conscious decision, then that’s where I’ve seen a bill created,” he said.
There’s a school of thought in the search and rescue world, Corkish said, that if people face the threat of a fine for rescue costs, they’ll be less likely to call for help. Then, the situation has the potential to get worse, which can put the person or rescue teams in a higher risk of danger.
“Most of the state is of the opinion that we don’t want to charge,” he said.
Other than the CORSAR fund, which consists of money from sales, and the money allocated from the Sheriff’s Office, there’s no other cost to the taxpayer, Corkish said.
Smith said Colorado counties get the majority of their revenues from property tax as opposed to sales tax, which means money spent on hotels and restaurants by visitors and tourists, who typically require rescue, doesn’t filter back to search and rescue.
“This is all being recognized and worked on,” Smith said. “We’re working hard to figure out how to do a better job (getting funding).”
Flight for Life helicopter rescues may be a different story, but that falls under the umbrella of Mercy Regional Medical Center, Corkish said. A representative with Mercy did not return calls for comment.
It’s difficult to attach a cost to one particular mission, Corkish said. This year, despite a seemingly busy summer, is on track for a normal amount of missions – about 60. So far, Search and Rescue has been out on 51 calls, which include assistance to neighboring counties.