Last week, a snowboarder got lost near the Caribou Townsite near Nederland. He was rescued after running in place through the night to stay warm. Forty people from 13 agencies worked for 12 hours to successfully locate the man. One of the main groups involved was the nonprofit rescue group that serves Boulder County, Rocky Mountain Rescue Group (RMRG).
As the season changes, rescues will go from snow to dirt, and equipment will switch from snow machines to hiking boots. But rescue needs will only increase as we head into summer.
“We see the most accidents when the weather is nice and pleasant to be outside,” said Angela Tomczik, a 10-year veteran of the RMRG team.
The all-volunteer nonprofit recently closed its 2023 recruiting season amid this evolving search-and-rescue system. The organization, in its 76th year, is under pressure to meet the needs of ever-more users of open space — and ever-more calls for rescue.
The new recruits will fill any gaps in expertise to ensure missions are still run like a well-oiled machine, even as the team of 75 now responds to around 200 calls a year, up nearly 40% in less than 10 years.
Rescues have always been free to the injured or lost, but as expensive equipment swallows up funding and missions become more abundant, keeping it that way will require a changing approach to sustainable funding, according to RMRG.
“I feel like we’re entering a new zone of funding needs,” said Steve Dundorf, RMRG’s current president.
The group’s total expenses have gone up nearly 90 percent since 2014. In that year the organization brought in around $97,000, and spent about $79,000 of it. In 2020, the organization’s revenue was about $187,000 and it spent about $150,000. With no paid staff aside from a bookkeeper, nearly 100% of that goes to operations.
Most of its funding comes from Boulder County and is administered through the sheriff’s office, which contracts with RMRG for search-and-rescue missions. Another small fraction comes in from the City of Boulder, and the rest comes from a mix of private donors and various grants.
Over the last few years, Dundorf said the group has put more emphasis on financial development as their funding needs have grown.
According to Dundorf, one outsized budget item, for instance, is a piece of gear every member needs: a radio. That basic piece of equipment, which used to go for $300, has skyrocketed to $2,000. With 76 volunteers on the team — and 11 new recruits this year that will replace a few who are retiring — that’s more than just a drop in the bucket.
Dundorf, a technical-minded civil engineer with three kids, is going into his 28th year as a volunteer for RMRG. He was compelled to dip his toes for the first time in chairing a political campaign last year to get votes for ballot measure 1B, which passed in November. This new 0.1% sales and use tax for emergency services is expected to raise roughly $11 million in 2023. That revenue will support an undetermined portion of RMRG operations, rural and wildland firefighting, trailhead safety — and even a shiny new base station for search and rescue that RMRG is looking forward to calling home.
As the group expands operationally, its current headquarters has become a tight squeeze.
Volunteers currently run the operation out of a tiny building with a flagstone facade near the east end of Walnut Street. It was a postal service auto repair shop in the 1960s and can’t fit the whole team for meetings. Rescue vehicles are left outside, which after a storm can mean spending precious response time clearing snow.
Not to say they aren’t grateful for the space, which is their first. They set up shop there in 2012 after decades of having nothing but a P.O. Box.
“Before that we were homeless,” said Dundorf.
From an old army carrier to cutting-edge equipment
The organization has indeed come a long way.
RMRG assembled into a rescue squad in 1947 after some local mountaineers were called in by the Boulder County sheriff to help locate a missing girl (unsuccessfully). Back then, volunteers used their own gear on rescues. No responder with a rope meant no rope. All the organization had to its name were three litters (which are basically fancy stretchers for carrying patients back to a trailhead), a few emergency blankets and a slow-going army personnel carrier painted yellow and dubbed “The Monster.”
Now, RMRG has an overflowing gear room, its own test tower for checking gear quality and replicating accidents to determine what went wrong, and a partnership with CU Boulder to research and develop new equipment when what they need isn’t commercially available.
As more people take to outdoor pursuits that are easily accessible in Boulder, RMRG has also had to grow increasingly efficient, sometimes responding to up to five calls a day in the peak summer season.
Dundorf said one of its most beneficial evolutions has been creating closer partnerships with other rescue agencies.
“Coordination improvements started with Sheriff Joe Pelle who made search and rescue response a priority.”
Fire departments, the Boulder County Sheriff’s Office, Colorado Search and Rescue Association and RMRG have gotten better at working together, making rescues run more smoothly, he said.
“Now the response is multi-agency. We all have our own skill sets.”
For example, if a call comes in from west Boulder County, say Indian Peaks, most likely the Indian Peaks Fire Department will get there first because they’re closest.
“So they can work on finding the patient, give some medical, and communicate back so we know we have the right resources,” explained Dundorf. RMRG specializes in extracting victims from difficult, often vertical, terrain.
Rescue calls increase nearly 40% but number of incidents remain small
It’s no coincidence that in a place centered around getting outside, a growing population equates to more incidents. The team responded to 130 calls in 2001, when the Boulder County population was 277,597. By 2022, population 341,615, their pagers went off 180 times. That’s a population increase of 23 percent, trailing a rescue increase of 38 percent.
But, Dundorf points out a rosier picture than one would expect to hear from a rescue worker: Of the 2 million or so visitors who enjoy Boulder County open space every year, only around 200 require rescue support. So although RMRG has become one of the busiest rescue groups in the country, the percentage of incidents is relatively small compared to the total amount of outdoor activity.
All of the missions are carried out by regular folks with day jobs — engineers, scientists, teachers, medical professionals — who are a part of the outdoor community themselves and want to give back.
“In our free time, our members are out skiing, climbing, trail running,” said Angela Tomczik, who specializes in ski rescue. “These are the activities we are passionate about, and being able to apply those skills to help the community is very meaningful for us.”
Over time, the recruiting process has changed to become more regimented. When Dundorf joined the team in 1995, 100 or more people would attend a training and then many would just fall off the map. It was unclear who would end up on the team. As of the last few cycles there has been a filtering process to bring in the right people.
Now, prospective members have to go to a first meeting, send in an application, and make it through interviews before getting accepted into a year-long training program. After training for a year or more, they have to get signed off on everything from specialty knot tying to vertical rigging to knowledge of Boulder’s topography. Only then can they get voted in and finally put on a blue team shirt to join rescues.
“There’s less of a secret sauce component as maybe there used to be,” said Tomczik.
It’s a time commitment of at least 100 hours a year — usually much more — plus the potential psychological impact that comes from witnessing tragedy.
“Psychological health has been at the forefront in research of first responder communities,” said Tomczik. “This work can have a psychological toll on our members, so we make sure to reach out and check on each other.”
When RMRG first started looking at helping address mental health challenges for its volunteers, there weren’t many resources available.
“When we started things up there weren’t a ton of resources out there. We had to work through what that looks like,” Dundorf said.
Now some of the team members have formed an internal group specifically to reach out to rescuers after a traumatic mission. Their goal is to help anyone involved get the counseling support they may need to process what happened.
While missions have become more abundant — radios have become more advanced and rescue vehicles can ascend Flagstaff much, much faster — some things never change.
“I’ve only been around for a third of our history but what’s interesting is that so much is the same,” Dundorf said. “We’re still out there to save lives. We may look a lot different, but why we’re out there is the same.”