Not all search and rescue funded equally
The local search and rescue teams are fueled by their dozens of volunteers, said Tom Ice, president of Garfield County Search and Rescue. But the rescue teams in Garfield County and Pitkin County are on completely different financial playing fields.
Each year, GSAR gets about $22,000 for an operating budget from the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office and around $10,000 annually from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs. The Garfield County team also relies on some donations from local companies.
In total, Garfield County has about $38,000 budgeted for search and rescue operations for 2016. But the team’s biggest funding source is through its volunteer members, Ice said.
The amount of in-kind support they put in is much harder to calculate. For their missions the members utilize thousands of dollars of personal gear, take off time from work and collectively spend thousands of hours training throughout year, he said.
And, though GSAR has the capability, members rarely ask for reimbursement for mission expenses.
For a typical search and rescue mission, the primary expense is fuel, he said.
If a helicopter is needed, GSAR usually turns to the Army National Guard unit out of Eagle, which has a running deal not to charge the sheriff’s office or GSAR for search and rescue flights.
Likewise, Mountain Rescue Aspen has a deal with medical flight providers like St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, so the team doesn’t get charged.
But if a helicopter flight picks someone up and then it turns into a medical flight to a hospital, then the person getting rescued would be billed like any other medical flight, said Ice.
And the GSAR team gets occasional donations from people it has rescued, he said.
A few years ago, Mountain Rescue Aspen enjoyed a large donation from Lynda Cameron, an Oklahoma woman who’d been rescued by the team in the 1970s. Mountain Rescue Aspen used that money partly to build a new headquarters in 2014.
The team didn’t disclose the amount of that donation, but tax filings show Mountain Rescue Aspen Charitable Trust, which owns the land its headquarters is on and is managed by Cameron, was started in 2012 with about $1.6 million in assets.
Big donations like that put the Aspen-based team on a different level financially compared to Garfield Search and Rescue.
For the last 10 years at least, GSAR has not been required to file tax forms because it sees less than $50,000 in revenue annually. Though they’re largely funded by Garfield County tax dollars, GSAR declined to share its actual budget documents with the Post Independent.
Mountain Rescue Aspen is in the enviable position of being funded entirely through donations and to much lesser degree by grants, said Jeffrey Edelson, the organization’s president.
“We’re a little different because of Aspen’s level of philanthropy,” said Edelson. “We own our own building, vehicles and equipment.”
He too declined to disclose what kind of budget the team works with. But the most recent tax filings for Mountain Rescue Aspen shows total donations and grants came to about $115,000 in 2010; $187,000 in 2011; $1.3 million in 2012; and $889,000 in 2013.
Total expenses for those years ran at $135,000 in 2010; $142,000 in 2011; $161,000 in 2012; and $144,000 in 2013.
As of 2013, the Mountain Rescue Aspen had $2.7 million in total assets.
The Colorado Department of Local Affairs also maintains a state search and rescue fund. When you buy a hunting or fishing license, 25 cents of that fee goes into the state fund.
Likewise, the state offers a Colorado Outdoor Recreation Search and Rescue card: $3 for one year and $12 for five years.
The misconception is that the CORSAR card and the hunting and fishing licenses act as insurance keeping you from getting billed, said Ice. But search and rescue will never bill you either way, whether you have a card or not.
The card and licenses simply feed the state fund, from which individual teams can apply for reimbursement.
In 2015, Garfield County received about $12,000 from the state fund and Pitkin County received about $15,000.
“We don’t want someone to hesitate to call because they’re worried about the charge. We don’t want someone to get into a dire, even fatal, situation because they hesitated to call,” Ice said.
On the high end, GSAR will see 60 to 70 missions in a year, and on the low end it might be only 20 to 30, he said.
In a typical year Mountain Rescue Aspen will get 120 calls for service, though recently that number has climbed to about 150, said Edelson.