After years adrift and scattered across the county, La Plata County Search and Rescue has a permanent home.
“It has exceeded expectations,” said La Plata County Search and Rescue President Ron Corkish.
For years, the county’s Search and Rescue team has been based out of a garage-type facility off Florida Road in Durango, with other equipment scattered across other locations in the community.
Butch Knowlton, La Plata County’s director for the Office of Emergency Management, said he first became involved with Search and Rescue in the late 1970s.
“We’ve been all over, tucked away in a lot of county buildings,” Knowlton said. “Over time, we acquired a lot of good equipment to do the work we do here, but it was difficult to store it and access it.”
Furthermore, the setup has been inadequate for the crew’s needs, and likely resulted in delayed response times in emergency situations in order to get the team and equipment mobilized for rescues, Corkish said.
But a serious push has been afoot the past few years to secure a permanent home for Search and Rescue.
As the old National Guard armory building in Bodo Industrial Park at 283 Girard St. was being renovated for about $4.2 million for the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office, the county planned to renovate a portion of the building for Search and Rescue.
The project was originally budgeted for $500,000, but bids for construction came back much higher than expected, County Manager Chuck Stevens said at the time. As a result, the plan was going to be scrapped.
But at the last minute, money became available through a federal payout program that compensates local governments for a portion of property tax revenue lost because of lands being exempt from taxes, such as public lands.
La Plata County was then able to direct about $774,000 to the Search and Rescue office. Search and Rescue provided an additional $65,000 from money raised during fundraisers and charity events.
“We are really pleased to have a permanent home for this critical community service, run by volunteers who consistently serve La Plata County in small- and large-scale emergencies,” said county spokeswoman Megan Graham.
The team was able to start moving into its estimated 2,700-square-foot space on the northwest corner of the building in May, Corkish said. Little by little throughout the summer, crews have been getting settled.
“To most people, it’s just a rectangular box,” he said. “But to us, it’s fantastic.”
First off, the new space fills a rather simple need: The crew can now store all of its vehicles and equipment in one location. That improvement alone allows Search and Rescue personnel to reach patients more quickly.
“Previously, when a mission started, we had to pull things from all over the county to make it work,” Corkish said. “Now, it’s all under one roof.”
And quicker response times typically mean more favorable outcomes.
“In most medical scenarios, the quicker you can respond, the more positive the outcome,” Corkish said.
The new building also features a communications room where teams can coordinate missions. Being located next to the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office allows easy access to classrooms for training. Eventually, the team would like to build a climbing wall inside the space for practices.
Search and Rescue has about 98 volunteers who go into the field to take part in missions. An additional 72 people are available to help respond in larger emergency situations, when shelters and call centers are required.
“We are so thankful for this incredible group of volunteers we have” said La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith. “They do a lot in the backcountry that would tie up resource I don’t have.”
On an average year, Search and Rescue participates in about 65 missions, which include mutual-aid incidents in seven surrounding counties. About one-third of those missions occur in La Plata County.
This year, despite high visitation in the backcountry, is about on par.
In 2018, for instance, there were 34 calls to La Plata County Search and Rescue year-to-date, and in 2019, 41 calls year-to-date. So far this year, there have been 33 calls, Corkish said.
“I think folks are paying attention, and perhaps if the backcountry is a new experience to them as an escape from COVID and a place to go recreate, they are recognizing it is a new environment, and paying attention to that,” he said.
And now, with Search and Rescue next to the Sheriff’s Office, the two agencies can become more integrated, Smith said.
“They’ve never had a home,” Smith said. “This was just an excellent opportunity.”