The future of search and rescue calls in our area is changing, as the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office has revealed plans to form a new nonprofit SAR team for Clackamas County — one that will include local search volunteers working together with sheriff’s office employees under a single, unified banner.
While Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts and others tout the merits of the move, saying it mirrors models that have proven success in other counties, it could mean the end of highly regarded and independent organizations that have already been dedicated to local search and rescue efforts for more than two decades, like Portland Mountain Rescue.
“Our research says this is the right way to go,” says Sheriff Roberts. “It’s a model that’s raised the bar for search and rescue in other counties. We hope card-carrying volunteers all join the new unified team. These are valuable working relationships that have saved many lives.
“We look forward to bringing those volunteers under one umbrella and making those working relationships even closer and stronger. It’s the right move for Clackamas County.”
Roberts says the plan for the new consolidated team comes in the wake of months of research and study, as well as interviews with other search teams successfully using the unified-team model.
“This reorganization is in line with state law that governs Search and Rescue in Oregon,” agreed Oregon Office of Emergency Management State Search and Rescue Coordinator Scott Lucas. “It’s considered best practices, as it follows the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Advisory Council guidelines.”
“NORSAR is excited for the upcoming changes and reorganization of our search and rescue teams,” said Stephen Korpi, president of North Oregon Regional Search and Rescue (NORSAR). “We feel that this change will provide improved structure, teamwork, and organized leadership to help improve our teams’ effectiveness during trainings and searches.”
But not all laud the move. Portland Mountain Rescue is a volunteer organization made up of about 75 specially trained rescuers, and is recognized as one of the leading rescue units in the country.
On Facebook, PMR said they support the sheriff’s efforts to improve search and rescue in Clackamas County, and “welcome many of the changes he wants to make.”
“However,” they continued, “we believe public safety can best be protected by preserving the attributes of PMR that are critical to safely and effectively performing rescues on Mt. Hood.”
PMR leadership have expressed concerns in other interviews that Mt. Hood, the second-most-climbed alpine mountain in the world, needs a dedicated and specially trained team — not a unit of general volunteers.
Data Supports Move
Sheriff Roberts says the formation of a single, unified search-and-rescue program for Clackamas County comes in the wake of recent litigation, at the recommendation of Clackamas County counsel, and following a comprehensive study that’s available for download on the county’s website.
The sheriff’s office was sued by the family of a climber who died on Mt. Hood in 2017, alleging that rescuers did not get to him fast enough. In the wake of litigation, Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts asked retired Undersheriff and former SAR-team member Matt Ellington to conduct a study of other search-and-rescue organizations to find ways to improve the Clackamas County model.
Ellington spent months studying SAR models and best practices throughout Oregon, Washington and California. He also interviewed a number of SAR leaders around the region to identify any recommendations they might have.
One of the key models studied was the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office’s volunteer SAR program, which uses the unified-team model.
As this evaluation process continued, Sheriff Roberts also assigned Deputy Scott Meyers to SAR on a full-time basis, and assigned Lt. Brian Jensen as the new supervisor to oversee SAR. He also assigned human-resources staff to address the SAR volunteer background and selection process.
Meyers and Jensen also traveled to Deschutes County and Mono County, California (which underwent a similar restructuring of search-and-rescue operations) to study their SAR models.
Highlights in Ellington’s report included the following recommendations:
After reviewing these recommendations and talking with key stakeholders statewide, Sheriff Roberts decided to move in this direction.
“The research says forming this team is the right move for Clackamas County residents,” Roberts said. “Clackamas County search-and-rescue missions are rising. The county population has risen by over 43,000 people in the past decade. Local response times and communication will improve with a single, dedicated team.
“Search and rescue in Clackamas County involves much more than Mt. Hood — it’s demanding and complex, across wilderness and urban environments. If a major disaster happens here, this will allow the quick deployment of SAR resources dedicated to Clackamas County.”
Plans Now Underway
Efforts are currently underway to establish the nonprofit Clackamas County Search & Rescue, as a work group finalizes plans for the new, unified team.
“The nonprofit will allow for public donations to buy new equipment and train volunteers,” said Sheriff Roberts. “The power of pooling our resources is enormous.”
Managing for Results, which collaborated with the county on its Performance Clackamas process, will work to develop a strategic plan, and the sheriff’s office is seeking input from experienced search volunteers.
Organizational details and an official launch date for Clackamas County Search & Rescue will be revealed in the coming months as the work group’s planning moves forward. In the meantime, the sheriff’s office says it will continue to work with area volunteer search organizations on missions across the county and region.
Current Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association (OSSA) SAR-card holders interested in becoming members of the new team are encouraged to complete a volunteer application and background-check process to join the new nonprofit here: https://www.clackamas.us/sheriff/sarteaminvite.html. The deadline for this round of applications is March 31, 2020.
Photo courtesy Portland Mountain Rescue on Facebook.
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