Garfield County Sheriff explains new Search and Rescue criteria
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, CO Colorado
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario explained his reasoning behind the changes in the volunteer application process in an e-mail message – in the form of a newsletter – addressed to several community members, Sheriff’s Office staff, Sheriff’s Auxiliary members, and current volunteers.
The decision to change the volunteer application requirements has stressed the relationship between the Sheriff and the Garfield County Search and Rescue Inc. team, which provides the service to the department.
“The decision for elevating the screening of volunteers was simple,” Vallario wrote in the e-mail. “Volunteers expose the organization to exactly the same liability as does a paid employee. So the basic litmus test is that a volunteer must have the same credibility as a paid employee.
“Or put another way, why would I have you volunteer for this organization if you couldn’t pass a background check to be hired as a paid employee? The obvious answer is that I won’t,” Vallario continued.
The message titled “Just the Facts” was dated Tuesday, Oct. 22, and is intended to be the first of a new Sheriff’s Office newsletter.
Vallario also stated in the message that, “While doing background checks on our volunteers, it was discovered that one of them had a warrant for their arrest and a Victim Specialists had previously been arrested for Domestic Violence!”
The message went on to read, “Now, does that confirm the need to scrutinize our volunteers before we allow them to come in contact with the people we are trying to help? I certainly think so.”
Vallario said Wednesday that through the new application process the Sheriff’s Office discovered that a third volunteer was involved in an extortion case involving “hundreds of thousands of dollars” in the past, but was not prosecuted because the individual cooperated with authorities.
“This is the kind of stuff that we would not find out, and this is the stuff that is not included in a criminal history,” Vallario said.
All three of the volunteers that were found to have some criminal history were not involved with Search and Rescue, Vallario said. And, he added, that all of the Sheriff’s Office volunteers – including the Battlement Mesa Auxiliary, Victim Response Team, and several volunteer groups in charge of programs within the jail such as Alcoholics Anonymous and a General Education Degree (GED) program for inmates, and some who work within the administrative offices of the Sheriff’s Office – have complied with the new application process. The only group which has been reluctant, Vallario said, is the Search and Rescue Team.
“I did not do this on a whim,” Vallario said. “I did this because in my heart, I feel that it’s my responsibility that I have to protect the citizen’s of this community.”
However, Mountain Rescue – Aspen Inc., which is the search and rescue nonprofit which responds by the request of neighboring Pitkin County Sheriff’s Office, does not include the Sheriff’s Office in the application process with its volunteers.
According to the President of Mountain Rescue – Aspen Inc., Hugh Zuker, the search and rescue team is responsible for doing its own applications and the board of directors decides who is qualified and who is not.
“That is correct,” Zuker said.
As far as a contingency plan for search and rescue missions – if the volunteer numbers are depleted – Vallario said that mutual aid from other agencies will be enough, and, if needed, the other agencies are ready to help out until they can recruit new members.
Vallario also said that between eight and 10 current search and rescue members have already complied with the new application request.
As for the Search and Rescue volunteer’s reluctance to agree to the new application process, Vallario said that he feels that most of them do not want to get wrapped up in the politics of the situation, and most just want to go out and do what SAR is called upon to do – find and rescue stranded or injured people.
Vallario set a compliance date of 5 p.m. on Oct. 30, for all current volunteers – not only search and rescue – to return the new nine-page application. Future volunteers will have to fill out a 39-page application.
So far, five current search and rescue members have resigned over the new requirements, including former Search and Rescue Inc. president Dave Pruett.
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Imagine Glenwood and The City of Glenwood Springs is slated to host a virtual town hall at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11.