COVID-19 intensified growing back country rescue overload


Search for missing backcountry skier after avalanche near Telluride on Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019. (Photo: San Miguel County Sheriff’s Office)

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DENVER (KDVR) — The state pushes outdoor recreation in these times of COVID-19 restrictions, but backcountry exploration has added to an already growing overload problem for search and rescue teams.

Search and rescue teams were already overloaded from the 700,000 newcomers who have flooded into Colorado in the past decade, prompting rescuers to propose Senate Bill 20-130 in January.

The bill, now put on hold due to the pandemic, would provide mental health services for the almost-entirely volunteer- and donations-funded search and rescue teams.

Advocates say this year proves their point.

The Colorado Search and Rescue Association represents the almost 50 individual search and rescue teams across the state. Together, they respond to roughly 3,600 calls a year.

This year’s calls have spiked as Coloradans escape the pandemic in the mountains.

Colorado Search and Rescue Association has coordinated 133 missions between agencies, compared to only 89 all of last year. The Lake County Search and Rescue team has experienced a 300% increase in call volume, the Chaffee County North operation has seen double the calls this year compared to last, and Summit County Search and Rescue has seen 170 missions, compared to 144 all last year.

Colorado search and rescue crews see more action during pandemic

As concerning as this new spike is, it only highlights problems the search and rescue community already has. The COVID-19 increase adds to a preexisting overload. Call volume had been going up for years.

Boulder – the nation’s busiest unpaid search and rescue team in the nation – responded to 235 calls in 2018, a 20% increase over two years. Calls to the Vail search and rescue team have more than doubled in five years from 67 to 147, and have already surpassed their 2019 total. The Custer County team currently has double the mission load of 2019.

These increased volumes have produced a kind of burnout.

Teams are volunteers who spend an average of $4,000 out of pocket to outfit themselves to be on 24/7 rescue call. CSRA says the average age of a new member on Alpine Rescue Team has risen by ten years and retention has gotten more difficult.

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