Preventative Search and Rescue: The Forgotten Solution to our SAR Crisis

It isn’t easy to be a search and rescue (SAR) volunteer in Colorado these days. The state’s 2,800 volunteers respond to more than 3,600 rescues every year… a number that continues to grow along with the state’s population. While teams do what they can to prevent accidents through education and outreach, they have limited time and resources and lack the expertise to engage in broad public educational campaigns – the kind that make a significant impact and prevent the most accidents. That’s why we need to invest more in preventative search and rescue (PSAR), especially in the private and nonprofit sectors. More aggressive educational campaigns can make a real impact and prevent hundreds of dangerous missions each year.

There are a rising number of SAR missions but fewer volunteers available to respond to them

In 2021 the state of Colorado released a major report on the state’s search and rescue teams (click here to see the full report). The study found that the number of missions is now more than 3,600 annually (nearly 10 per day). At the same time, teams face new constraints as many SAR team members retire and fewer young people step up to replace them. The result has been a crunch of rising demand with fewer resources to respond, leaving volunteers physically and emotionally exhausted. While teams need more funding to attract and train members, we also need to do more to prevent these missions in the first place.

Preventative search and rescue involves educating the public to prevent rescues from happening

Preventative search and rescue programs are diverse and cast a wide net. From in-person training and workshops, to online guides, articles, webinars, and printed materials, there are many ways to educate people on staying safe in the backcountry. The key is to share information on risk management, decision-making, and the skills and gear necessary to stay safe and survive an unplanned night outdoors. 

There are several preventative search and rescue programs in place in Colorado. One example include Colorado’s many in-person and virtual avalanche awareness and education classes. These programs began in the 1990s in response to a growing number of avalanche accidents, and have since seen a significant plateau, and then decline in accidents. Learning from the successes of the backcountry education movement is a good place to start for designing broader PSAR programs.

SAR teams recognize the importance of PSAR but don’t have the resources or time to do it all themselves

The steadily growing number of missions leaves SAR teams with very little time or resources to engage in broad public education campaigns. Most teams do what they can in terms of preventative search and rescue through social media, workshops, and public speaking, but know that more needs to be done. The state’s 2021 report found that “only about 30% of BSAR volunteers and sheriffs say that public outdoor safety education is “good” or better.” 

The respondents cited a lack of resources and time, difficulty getting the public’s attention, and low engagement as reasons for the lack of preventative search and rescue resources. With search and rescue teams overwhelmed, who should take on the challenge of creating robust PSAR programs throughout Colorado? 

All hands on deck: We can all help share preventative search and rescue education

To put it simply, this is all of our problem. Anyone could become a victim of an accident in the mountains. We all have a vested interest in supporting SAR teams in case we need them someday. That’s why we all need to step up to the plate to help invest in preventative search and rescue programs and resources. 

There are many different organizations across a range of sectors and industries well suited to help. For example, non-profits like the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative and Colorado Mountain Club already run extensive education and public messaging campaigns. Government agencies like the Forest Service and the state DNR have additional resources and information, and dozens – if not hundreds – of private blogs, magazines, social media influencers, and membership organizations have a broad reach to share these resources with the public.

Coordination remains a key need to align our work and set shared goals and measures.

The missing link right now is the coordination required to pull together all the pieces. This is where the state of Colorado could play a critical role, providing overall leadership to bring together safety experts, communicators, and marketers to coordinate and align their efforts around a common set of goals. We don’t need to start from scratch – many organizations, like The Next Summit, are already creating amazing educational resources. The key is streamlining the process to scale the impact these small groups are making today, so we can have a broader impact on the outdoor community and prevent more search and rescue accidents.

Preventing SAR missions protects the victim and the volunteers who would have gone after them

The typical approach to rising SAR calls has been to invest in building teams large enough to deal with them. However this subjects an increasingly large number of SAR volunteers to risk in the field as the number of missions they go on goes up. We saw this risk last summer in Colorado when 3 out of 4 team members were hit by rockfall on a Capitol Peak body recovery mission. 

The danger was so great that the team eventually chose to leave the victim’s body there permanently – they could not justify going back out to give him given the risk. When we work together to prevent a search and rescue mission, we not only protect the victim but the volunteers who would have gone after them. That’s what’s so powerful about PSAR – it saves money, saves lives, and saves volunteer time. It’s a win-win-win.

How to Call search and rescue

How can you be part of the preventative search and rescue solution? Here’s three things you can do today

If you’re charged and ready to help fix this situation, there are things you can do to make an impact. Here are three ideas to get you started.

First: Consider becoming a patron of The Next Summit. For only $3/month you’ll help me create new articles, guides, infographics, and webinars focused on preventative search and rescue topics. Your support helps with content creation (web hosting, graphic design, research) as well as sharing it with the public (social media, email marketing, webinars).

Second: Write to your state legislator or give them a call and tell them you want to see increased state funding for preventative search and rescue efforts and public outdoor safety education. Remember to emphasize your priority is prevention efforts, as many legislators may not understand the difference yet between preventative search and rescue and more general search and rescue efforts.

Third: Get involved in one of the many groups active in this area. Become a Peak Steward with the Colorado Fourteeners Initiative or join the Conservation Working Group with the Colorado Mountain Club. This is the best way to actively participate and engage in preventative search and rescue programming, while also introducing you to an amazing network of like-minded people.

Preventative search and rescue is the solution to our search and rescue crisis in Colorado

The number of people moving to Colorado continues to go up, and 80% of newcomers express a desire to spend significant time outdoors recreating. Unless we match this increase in outdoor demand with a proportionate increase in education, we can expect to see a similar increase in our search and rescue demand. Preventative search and rescue programs can help prevent these extra missions, saving lives (both volunteer and victims), saving resources, and making the mountains a safer place for all. Get started today as a supporter of The Next Summit, by speaking with your representatives, and by getting active with a local outdoor education organization. We can do this, but only with your support. Safe travels on the trails!

Alex Derr, Creator of The Next Summit

Alex is an Eagle Scout and mountaineer living in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. You can subscribe to his Next Summit Newsletter here.

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