As federal law enforcement dollars continue to evaporate, the Jackson County Sheriff's Department is seeking new ways to fully fund its search-and-rescue program.
The federal government traditionally has reimbursed the team for operations conducted on public lands, pitching in to pay volunteer crews for mileage, food and other expenses.
That money is no longer available, however, and the agency is looking at ways to keep the program robust, Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said.
"In the past, we've received six figures in funding from the feds to conduct these searches on public lands," Winters said. "But now that funding is drying up, and we are left to figure out how to keep the people of this county safe when they get lost in the wildlands."
Sheriff's Department Sgt. Shawn Richards, who supervises search and rescue, said the bulk of the agency's operations occur on land owned by the federal government.
"Last year we had 119 operations," Richards said. "It's busy year-round for us. We're now going to have to get creative in how we fund this search and rescue."
One way to do that would be to start a membership service that would draw donations and yearly fees from local businesses and county residents, Winters said. "We hope that there are enough people in the county who want to see search and rescue continue to do the great job that it does," Winters said. "We have a 100 percent find rate when it comes to searching for lost hikers, skiers and any other people who get into trouble while recreating in this valley."
Search and rescue is 90 percent staffed by volunteers, who train on weekends and holidays in life-saving techniques in the wilderness.
"We couldn't do it without the volunteers," Richards said.
Oregon law allows search-and-rescue programs to charge up to $500 for a search operation. The Sheriff's Department does not charge for searches now, Winters said.
"We don't think charging people for a search is a good idea," Winters said. "We don't want anyone to hesitate calling us because they don't want to pay $500."
The search-and-rescue team operates on a budget of $465,000 for the year — down significantly from recent years, Winters said.
"We keep finding a way, but times are getting lean," Winters said. "In the past, we've received help from other counties, and we've helped them, but now their sheriff's departments have been hit hard and they simply don't have the resources to spare. That leaves us with the most active search-and-rescue in southwest Oregon."
The agency is continually looking for fresh blood in its volunteer pool, Richards said.
"We have a turnover of about 30 people a year," he said. "We have about 130 volunteers right now, and we'd always take more."
People with special training such as rope climbing and communications are particularly helpful, but the agency will accept untrained residents who are willing to give their time to help in rescue operations, Richards said.
"We take people from all walks of life," he said.
Prospective volunteers are vetted by a background check before joining.
For more information on the search-and-rescue volunteer program and to download an application, see the Jackson County Sheriff's Department website at www.jacksoncountyor.org/sheriff/Home.aspx.
Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471 or firstname.lastname@example.org.