Boulder’s Unpaid Heroes: County depends on search and rescue volunteers

19 Sep 2016

Search and rescue volunteers work alongside county police and fire departments

By Adeline Bash Gretchen Abbott and her two friends didn’t expect anything out of the ordinary when they set out to rock climb the first Flatiron late one afternoon last May. The experienced climbers were so confident they’d be back in town before sundown, Abbott was the only one who’d even brought a headlamp.
Volunteer rescuers pick a stuck climber off the Ruper route in Eldorado Canyon State Park. (photo © by Dave Christenson, 2009)
Volunteer rescuers pick a stuck climber off the Ruper route in Eldorado Canyon State Park. (photo © by Dave Christenson, 2009)
They saw the error in their planning soon after summitting, when they were unable to find the final rope anchors at the top of the rock and the sun began to set. As the rock face grew steadily darker, and Abbott’s calls to a friend for advice went unanswered, they began to panic. Four hours later, they were in the process of finding boulders and trees to tie their ropes to, in a last-ditch effort to rappel down the rock face, when Abbott heard her name called from below. The climbers had been found by the Rocky Mountain Rescue Group, whom Abbott’s friend had called after he couldn’t get back in touch with her. At 3 a.m., after the rescuers helped the climbers locate the missing anchors and safely rappel down, the group walked away unscathed. “I felt so lucky in the end, humbled and a tiny bit embarrassed,” Abbott says, seeing some humor in the situation today but recognizing how much worse it could have been. “There’s a very high chance one of us would have died. Or, at the very least, fallen a large distance and gotten very hurt.”

Volunteers to the Rescue

Rocky Mountain Rescue Group is one of five nonprofit groups contracted and mobilized through the Boulder County Sheriff’s Department to provide search-and-rescue services at no charge to Boulder County residents. The other four are the Front Range Rescue Dogs, Boulder Emergency Squad, Longmont Emergency Unit and Boulder County Sheriff Mounted Search and Rescue Unit. Since their founding—the oldest dates back to 1947—these groups have been run entirely by unpaid volunteers. Their responsibilities, to name a few, include swiftwater and dive rescue, avalanche search and rescue, wildland firefighting, and vehicle extrication. Working alongside county police and fire departments, they rescue hikers, climbers and skiers from hairy situations, regardless of the circumstances that led them there. They are some of the first to respond to the scene of a car accident, armed with the tools to get people out, and some of the best at finding missing people. “This is not a club,” says Boulder Emergency Squad chief and president Andy Amalfitano. “We run like a paid professional organization, we just don’t get paid.” Search and rescue is just one niche filled by volunteers during times of crisis in Boulder County. Groups like the Boulder County Victim Assistance Program, Moving to End Sexual Assault, and Project Edge Mental Health Partners also respond to emergencies to provide emotional and psychological assistance to victims, families and anyone else affected by the event. These volunteers devote their personal time and physical and emotional selves—sacrificing time away from their families, not to mention sleep—to be on call for the Boulder community day and night, every day of the year. According to Danette Tye, a volunteer victim advocate with the Boulder County Victim Assistance Program, “You live your life ready to leave in 10 minutes.” Many volunteers have done this work for 20-plus years, and the majority for more than five. Thanks to decades of experience and regular trainings and seminars, their skills and expertise in their specific areas often surpass those of their paid counterparts. Without these groups, providing these services could cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars. “It would be huge,” says Boulder County Sheriff Joe Pelle, estimating that the emergency volunteers—around 300 active ones—would amount to several hundred paid staff a year. “We would not be able to accomplish our responsibilities without volunteers.”

Positive Impacts

During the past seven decades, Boulder’s volunteer community has assisted in thousands of emergencies, making them key players in some of the county’s most memorable history. The emergency search-and-rescue groups played a vital role in the response efforts following the 2013 Boulder County floods, for example. Responders still recount those days as some of the most grueling they’ve experienced.
Jeff Sparhawk—a 25-year volunteer with Rocky Mountain Rescue and Front Range Rescue Dogs—with his dog Hiydn on an avalanche search, January 2016. (photo © by Dale Atkins)
Jeff Sparhawk—a 25-year volunteer with Rocky Mountain Rescue and Front Range Rescue Dogs—with his dog Hiydn on an avalanche search, January 2016. (photo © by Dale Atkins)
Many residents also remember the historic 2003 blizzard that kept school kids home for days and triggered avalanches that stranded skiers at Eldora Mountain Resort. Jeff Sparhawk does. He’s volunteered for 25 years with Rocky Mountain Rescue and the Front Range Rescue Dogs, which braved 7-foot snowbanks to rescue the stranded people. Among the hundreds of scenes Tye has been called to in her seven years with the Boulder County Victim Assistance Program, she remembers consoling the Boulder teenagers who were on the 2013 Nederland camping trip that made headlines after an apparent LSD-fueled stabbing left a 17-year-old dead. She remembers attending the funeral of the victim, where the father of one of the teens told her his son described her as his “angel that day.” Most incidents, however, fade into history, leaving their mark only on the individuals directly involved. But it’s for these community members that Boulder’s volunteers are perhaps the most vital resource. “There are so many times where people say, ‘I don’t know what I would have done without an advocate,’” says Cecil O’Farrell, director of the Boulder County Victim Assistance Program, explaining that advocates are on scene during people’s most dire times of need—when “the worst thing that could happen has happened.” Being on scene for victims, searching for stranded climbers in the middle of the night, or assisting in any of the other dozens of tasks Boulder’s volunteers are called to year after year can take its toll. Terrie Kirkpatrick has volunteered with the Front Range Rescue Dogs, alongside her husband, John, and their dogs Tia and Echo, since 2002. She recalls countless family gatherings interrupted so that either she or John could assist in a search effort. All too often, the best possible resolution is to find a person’s body to help bring closure to families. “We want to be there for people when they need us, but it can be a little emotionally tiring at times,” Kirkpatrick says. For the volunteers who stick around, the challenges are dwarfed by the rewards. They describe the importance of being part of a tight-knit community of like-minded people, of giving back to their community, and perhaps most important, of having their eyes opened to the hardships that Boulder citizens endure every day—and having the opportunity to impact them positively. “I always feel like Boulder is sheltered [from tragedy], but that’s really not true,” says Alex Mendez, who has volunteered as a victim advocate since April. “But that’s why we’re here—to make it better as much as we possibly can.”

How to Get Involved

New recruits are always welcome in Boulder’s volunteer groups to assist with everything from administrative work to hands-on emergency search and rescue. Here are a few resources for residents hoping to participate. Boulder Sheriff’s Office The Sheriff’s Office is a good starting point to connect with the county’s emergency-service volunteers, including the county’s search-and-rescue volunteer groups and the Victim Assistance Program. Contacts: Marci Linton, Emergency Services Coordinator: 303-441-3646 Sgt. Dave Booton, Emergency Services Supervisor: 303-441-3625 Mental Health Partners Provide emotional support during times of crisis with groups like Moving to End Sexual Assualt (MESA) and the Project EDGE (early diversion, get engaged) program, both coordinated through Mental Health Partners. Contacts: Mental Health Partners: MESA:, 303-443-0400 United Way Find various volunteer opportunities in Boulder and beyond through the United Way Volunteer Connection, or by directly contacting the Foothills United Way chapter. Contacts: Foothills United Way: 303-444-4013 Rosemary Arp, Volunteer Advisor and Volunteer Program Coordinator

Freelancer Adeline Bash enjoys writing about her adventures in Colorado almost as much as having them. A Boulder native, she studied journalism at the University of Oregon before returning to Colorado, where she now works in marketing for a local outdoor company.
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