Essential Workers: Search and Rescue Teams Are Ready to Serve, 24/7

It's a tough time to be in the search and rescue business. Not only are calls up significantly in many areas as more folks seek solace in the outdoors, but the pandemic has significantly slowed rescue team recruiting and training events, leading to fewer available workers in the field.
Photo Dave Arnett, provided by CSAR.

It’s a tough time to be in the search and rescue business. Not only are calls up significantly in many areas as more folks seek solace in the outdoors, but the pandemic has significantly slowed rescue team recruiting and training events, leading to fewer available workers in the field.

I got in touch with Anna DeBattiste, a mountain biker and member of the Summit County Rescue Group in Colorado, to learn about this essential group of first responders that many of us take for granted until we’re in need of assistance ourselves.

In Colorado, search and rescue (SAR) teams are largely if not entirely made up of professional volunteers. The state has about 50 teams that vary in size based on the terrain and the size of the population served.

According to DeBattiste, “Colorado SAR teams can range from 20 to 100 volunteer members, and can average from 30 to 300 calls per year.”

Mountain bikers in need

Photo: Anna DeBattiste / CSAR.

Mountain bikers, as a group, appear to make up a small percentage of rescues, at least in Colorado. Prior to 2020, the Colorado Search and Rescue Association (CSAR) member teams responded to an average of about 3,600 incidents each year. Of those, a small and relatively consistent number — between 44 and 67 from 2015 to 2019 — involved bicycles ridden off road. That’s less than 2%, an impressive number considering that mountain bikers likely make up much more than 2% of backcountry visitors each year.

Since 2018 I’ve been informally tracking the number of deaths related to mountain biking as reported by online, mostly English-language publications. In the first 12 months I noted 16 deaths; in the second, it was 19. In just the past eight months, 18 were reported. Where the cause of death was known and reported, more than 70% involved a crash. But that leaves a significant 30% where the cause of death was due to another factor, like a heart attack or “natural” causes during a ride.

DeBattiste says that SAR is about more than responding to backcountry accidents. “They also occasionally respond to plane crashes, backcountry suicides, and lost person reports that may have a backcountry component. They go to work where the pavement ends, and they are available 24/7.”

Photo: Jeff Barber.

As electric mountain bikes become more popular, some have raised concerns that greater numbers of inexperienced riders hitting the trails could lead to more rescue calls. With the increased range and confidence afforded by e-bikes, riders are no doubt venturing further into the backcountry.

“I’m not getting any stats or even stories about e-bike rescues,” DeBattiste says. This could be due to a lack of reporting beyond classifying victims as “bicyclists,” but even anecdotally it sounds as if e-bikes aren’t leading to an increase in rescue calls. At least, not yet.

“Of course, e-bikes mean people can get further into the backcountry, perhaps further than their fitness level would normally allow for, and without the kind of equipment and supplies they might need if they were to be stuck that far into the backcountry. So yes, it does add another level of complexity that we have to think about when planning a search area or rescuing an injured party. It also suggests that mountain rescue teams should start investing in e-bikes eventually in order to be able to go after e-bikers efficiently.”

Volunteer force

Rocky Mountain Rescue Group. Photo: Anna DeBattiste / CSAR.

In 2012 I was personally rescued by a SAR team in Arkansas. While driving back from Colorado to my home in Georgia, I stopped to ride a remote trail alone, on one of the hottest days of the year, possibly one of the hottest on record for the area. Looking back I clearly wasn’t prepared with enough water, and a series of unfortunate mechanical incidents left me miles from my vehicle, severely dehydrated, and without a working bike.

After realizing the seriousness of my situation, and unable to make it out on foot, I dialed 911 on my cell phone. A rescue team, made up of three individuals driving two personal vehicles, responded within an hour. The volunteers made sure I got cooled down and hydrated, and they drove me and my bike back to the trailhead which was miles away. After checking to make sure I didn’t need medical assistance, the only payment rendered was a handshake and an embarrassed smile.

As a volunteer force, CSAR member teams do not charge individuals for rescue operations. However, patients are generally charged by their medical provider for transport, and in the case of a helicopter ride, the cost can be significant. In 2016, according to WebMD, the average cost of an air ambulance trip was $39,000. Regular ground ambulance trips aren’t cheap either, often costing thousands of dollars for a ride to the hospital.

While living in Colorado, many friends insisted it was a good idea to purchase a hunting or fishing license as a form of insurance in case of rescue. The rumor goes that having a license absolves the victim of reimbursing some or all of the costs involved. According to DeBattiste, that’s not quite how it works.

Photo: Publisher Kessling, provided by CSAR.

“When you buy a hunting or fishing license, a CORSAR card (Colorado hiking card), or an OHV license in Colorado, a small portion of that fee goes into a fund that county sheriffs can apply to for reimbursement of extraordinary mission expenses. For example, if you break your leg mountain biking and you have one of these licenses or cards, and the team that rescues you loses or damages a piece of equipment during your rescue, the team can apply to the fund for reimbursement.

“The fund does not, however, pay for the routine expenses of maintaining a search and rescue team. Teams in Colorado are non-profit all-volunteer organizations funded primarily through donations and grants. The members typically volunteer their time not only to rescue people but also to fundraise for the team.”

CSAR is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization, which means donations are tax deductible. CORSAR cards can be purchased online, and are good for either one or five years.

Avoiding the SAR

While it’s reassuring to know SAR first responders have our back in the event of an accident or emergency, it’s best to be prepared when venturing into the backcountry, or even just hitting local trails in the front-country. Though we are in the age of cell phones and SPOT satellite devices, SAR is not a concierge service. DeBattiste says while some rescues are initiated by friends or family members of a missing person, or in some cases by other trail users, the victim’s own cell phone is often used to call for help, so it’s a good idea to bring one along for the ride.

“While it’s never a good idea to rely too much on a cell phone, it’s always a good idea to carry one and to conserve the battery or carry an extra battery. Dispatch centers can usually get location coordinates from 911 calls, which really helps the SAR team. 

“A satellite communication device is also a good idea for someone who frequently recreates in remote areas of the backcountry.  We typically recommend the type that allows for two-way messaging.”

DeBattiste provided this helpful graphic. Hikers and bikers alike can benefit from being prepared with these items.

Ultimately, DeBattiste says a lack of preparation or knowledge is often a factor in bikers needing assistance. Unexpected weather or trail conditions, a lack of planning, and navigation failures are just a few factors that can turn a fun trip outdoors into a serious situation requiring search and rescue. Packing the ten essentials shown in the graphic above, whether hiking or biking, can help. Still, even the most experienced and prepared outdoor adventurers can run into problems.

“Of course, there is also the ‘stuff happens’ factor.  Sometimes a backcountry recreationist does everything right and still gets hurt or lost. Mountain bikers crash, hikers twist an ankle, skiers blow out knees, climbers fall. Medical events like heart attacks can occur while someone is in the backcountry. Even well-prepared recreationists sometimes get disoriented or caught out in unexpected bad weather.”

Before heading out, consider whether you’re prepared to spend the night outdoors if you or someone in your group is lost or injured. And be sure to tell someone outside of your group where you’re going, and when you expect to return so they can call for help in case of emergency.

SAR in the time of SARS-CoV-2

Chewacla State Park, Alabama, November 2020. Photo: Jeff Barber

Visit any local trail system in the world today and you’ll likely note there are a lot more people hiking and biking than usual. With the increase in visits, SAR teams are busier than ever. CBC reports that in British Columbia, as in many other places, a record number of emergency calls have been fielded. Colorado teams are seeing an increase as well.

“Many, although not all, teams in Colorado are reporting an increase in calls since the pandemic began. Some of our member teams were reporting as much as a 200 – 300% increase last summer over the previous summer.”

During pandemic, emergency responders put themselves at additional risk due to the threat of Covid exposure, both from their victims and fellow rescue workers.

The pandemic has also made it difficult to recruit and train volunteers. In 2019, CSAR member teams provided more than 350,000 hours of volunteer service, which represents a huge effort on the part of many individuals. DeBattiste notes, “teams couldn’t train in person for a good part of the year, and many teams also had to cancel their annual member recruitment events.”

Those interested in volunteering can search online for their local team website to find out about training and opportunities to serve. And for those who are unable to volunteer, but still want to support SAR teams, many organizations, like CSAR, accept donations.