Business owners and CEOs: Want to support backcountry search and rescue in Colorado?  Here’s how.

In Public by Anna Debattiste

The backcountry search and rescue (BSAR) community in Colorado is successful not only through the efforts of its approximately 3000 volunteers, but also through the support of local business owners and large corporations with employees in Colorado.  These companies recognize the value that volunteer BSAR members provide not only to the outdoor recreation community but also to their organizations. 

We have many examples of companies who give financial support to their local teams, or to CSAR to support our member teams.  One standout is Breeze Thru Car Wash, which has been running an annual fundraiser for Larimer County Search and Rescue for ten years now. The business has raised over $100,000 by dedicating all profits to the team on one specified day, a day on which the team can also man a table at one of the car wash locations to offer public education and solicit more donations.  Owner John Agnew says, “A lot of my business success came from things I learned in BSAR when I was volunteering with Summit County Rescue Group years ago – how to deal with tough situations, critical thinking, dealing with people.  Now I’ve moved on and live in Larimer County, but I still want to support those organizations that taught me so much and I do that by fundraising for Larimer County SAR.”   

What’s harder to find, and perhaps even more important, is examples of organizations who support their employees’ volunteerism by giving time rather than money.  The recent BSAR report conducted by a task force appointed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife reports that 62% of BSAR volunteers in Colorado are employees, and they give an average of 200 to 400 volunteer hours per year (compared to a national average of only 52 annual hours). Teams in smaller and more rural areas of Colorado often tell us that when they have a search and rescue call, especially during weekday business hours, it can be difficult to get enough responders to carry out the necessary response because team members can’t leave work.  When a team can’t mount a large enough response, they are forced to reach out to neighboring teams for help, which may leave those teams less able to respond to an incident in their own county.  

Providing this kind of support, however, can pose challenges for any business, especially smaller businesses.  How do they manage it?  Here are some thoughts from a few companies, big and small, that do:

Desert Mountain Medicine, a Leadville-based wilderness medicine instruction company, employs two of Leadville County Search and Rescue team’s incident commanders.  Both are allowed to take call while they’re working as well as to leave work for incidents or training without any pay docking or PTO tracking.  The company also donates annually to the team, and offers customized Wilderness First Responder classes for LCSAR and other Colorado teams and first responder professionals at a significant discount.  CEO and founder Nadia Kimmel has served as a field member on three SAR teams in Colorado in years past – Larimer County Search and Rescue, Summit County Rescue Group, and Lake County Search and Rescue.  She comments, “I’ve experienced firsthand the unique and complex challenges SAR personnel face in this critical work. We, as a company composed of outdoor professionals from diverse backgrounds, acknowledge our gratitude for Colorado SAR professionals, with whom we work and learn side-by-side.”

Big Agnes, a Colorado-based backpacking gear retailer, supports BSAR by allowing one of their employees to leave work for incident response with Routt County Search and Rescue.  “With our headquarters based in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, everyone here at Big Agnes gets outside to recreate often,” said Bill Gamber, president. “We try to be safe in the backcountry and hope that none of our staff or customers ever need a backcountry rescue. We support our employee Harry Sandler, vice president and training director for Routt County Search and Rescue, and the unique challenges that come with having a team member like him who needs to leave at a moment’s notice to respond to a mission. Harry has been a valuable part of our Warranty and Return Center for many years and we are proud to be able to work with him and support our local SAR team.”

Arapahoe Basin ski area has five employees who volunteer for Summit County Rescue Group, including one who is a mission coordinator. A-Basin allows the mission coordinator to take on-call shifts while he’s working and allows the other employees to leave work to respond to calls at times.  Operations director Tony Cammarata comments, “We appreciate our partnership with SCRG and the Summit County Sheriff’s Office. We feel the contribution our staff makes to the rescue community, both at the ski area and through the rescue group (or Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment), is really important and we want to support them in any way possible. These folks have a passion for the mountain lifestyle and we just think a little flexibility to allow them to volunteer for Summit County and our guests is the right thing to do.”

All the Range, a Westcliffe-based outdoor adventure gear retailer, is owned by former Custer County Search and Rescue team member Tom Dimler.  CCSAR member Pat Fiore comments, “Tom has supported our team by providing public education on backcountry safety in one-on-one conversations with customers. He asks questions about what they plan on doing and helps them make smart(er) decisions. He also promotes sales of CCSAR hats and shirts, provides us with customer donations, and allows us to set up a table in front of the store to educate the public while selling CORSAR stickers and team logo items.”

Children’s Hospital Colorado employs Park County Search and Rescue member Briana Kille.  Briana says, “I have carte blanche to leave for a SAR incident, as long as I communicate with anyone I’m supposed to meet with and there are no immediate deadlines. One time I got a 3:00 am rescue call and sent a message to my supervisor that I would be responding.  I took a meeting in my truck sitting at the trailhead to make it work.”

Rope Partners, a California-based provider of equipment services to the wind turbine industry, has employed Custer County SAR member and CSAR vice president Jonathan Wiley for 15 years.  Jonathan started as a field technician and worked his way up to supervisor, then director of safety and training.  “Rope Partners has always been very supportive of my volunteer time outside of PTO,” Jonathan says.   Rope Partner’s CEO, Eric Stanfield, has advice for other companies seeking to provide this kind of support to BSAR teams. “We are proud to be able to assist the SAR program and its valuable service supporting the medical emergency needs of those that want to venture into the great outdoors,” Stanfield says.  “We can offer Jonathan this autonomy to mobilize on SAR missions because he has developed our Safety Department to provide consistent oversight and care for our technicians while away from his desk….For those companies that wish to support employees who are passionate about this type of public service, I would suggest empowering the individual to create the framework that allows him/her to step away while ensuring his duties are covered. This opportunity will motivate employees to take on this challenge, growing them as individuals and as valuable members of a team…The leadership skills Jonathan has developed within SAR over the years have enhanced his ability to shepherd what is well recognized as one of the most professional safety programs in the US wind power industry.”

The City of Fort Collins, according to seasoned first responder Vicki Cotton, gives all employees four paid hours of volunteer time a year. While that might not be enough time for incident response, it can allow an employee to attend pre-planned events like training sessions, team meetings, public education events and fundraising events. “We can volunteer for a city-sponsored event, or turn in our volunteer hours on our own,” Vicki says, even for hourly staff. “They are very inclusive in the way they treat their hourly staff. They have pre-planned things like food bank or animal shelter projects, but you can do your own thing too.”  Vicki’s resume includes being a member or employee of Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, Rocky Mountain National Park, Larimer County Search and Rescue, and Diamond Peaks ski patrol, in addition to having worked for Fort Collins as a database manager and community garden manager. 

Keith Keesling, CSAR state coordinator and board member and captain of Dolores County Search and Rescue, works as the emergency manager for Dolores County. “The Dolores County Commissioners wholeheartedly embrace the life safety and welfare of the citizens and visitors to Dolores County,” Keith says.  “They allow me to pursue SAR efforts not only locally, but also at the state level, spending countless hours training and organizing our team, attending state CSAR board meetings, and working week-long on-call shifts as a CSAR state coordinator.”  The recent BSAR task force study notes that CSAR state coordinators volunteer a minimum of 672 hours per year.

About 18% of BSAR volunteers in Colorado are self-employed.  Kris Hegler with Fremont Search and Rescue owns an antiques shop with her husband called Oil City Merchants in Florence.  Kris says, “Because only the two of us run the business, there have been times when I received a mission activation when I was the only one running the shop. When this happens, I have to politely tell customers that I have an emergency situation and need to close the store. If that happens during the early afternoon or before, it usually means our business is closed the rest of the day, which potentially equates to lost income. In our case it’s certainly not a “make or break” situation, but it can be an inconvenience for our customers. Most of them are understanding.”

Why should companies care about providing this kind of support? The outdoor recreation industry is a multi-billion dollar piece of Colorado’s economy, and BSAR is the safety net for that industry.  Supporting BSAR makes sense from a community responsibility perspective and also makes for great public relations opportunities for your business, given the amount of media attention BSAR incidents get in Colorado.  

It’s not just about “the right thing to do,” however.  Hiring – and more importantly retaining– BSAR volunteers is good for your business because they are typically great communicators, team players, leaders and problem solvers.  BSAR volunteers are driven to do what they do by a public service mentality, and doing backcountry search and rescue develops them to handle difficult situations and perform well under pressure.  They tend to be loyal and take pride in what they do, and they have good values that translate well to the workplace.  

The BSAR study found that these volunteers contribute more than 500,000 hours per year collectively to backcountry search and rescue activities.  Won’t you be part of supporting their efforts?