Amanda Weisbrod

The state House Committee on Veterans and Emergency Services is set to review a bill directing the Oregon Office of Emergency Management to research and recommend state funding options for county search and rescue programs by 2021. Although the bill mandates only exploring funding sources and not allocating them just yet, it is still a step forward for SAR programs statewide, according to Union County SAR Lieutenant Nick Vora.

If House Bill 2503 passes, Vora said, it would be especially helpful to rural search and rescue programs because they are forced to operate on small budgets based on low populations.

“(This bill) could help us significantly,” said Vora, who has been involved with SAR since 2013. “Even funding to the tune of $2,500 — that might sound like peanuts, but that would essentially double our funding.”

Union County’s search and rescue team is currently composed of about 40 volunteers who give their time and supply their own equipment in order to save lives. In 2018, SAR received 30 calls, 23 of which resulted in SAR “activation,” or the process of dispatching volunteers into the field. Because almost all of these volunteers are recreationally active in the area, they know the land well, giving their search and rescue efforts an edge.

“Having local people on our search and rescue team is a huge asset to us. Search and rescue is big in areas like Eastern Oregon where a significant amount of our population enjoys outdoor recreation of all types,” Vora said. “When they have an emergency out there, we are the resource that is equipped and trained to find and rescue them. There really is no immediate alternative to search and rescue.”

Union County’s search and rescue team collects about $5,000 per year in donations, which make up the bulk of their funding, but they also receive $2,500 from the Union County Sheriff’s Office’s annual budget, according to Fred Hawkins, a search operations manager and past SAR captain. Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen said he allocates more funds to SAR whenever he can.

“If we have additional resources at the end of the year, sometimes I’ll help them out with a snowmobile or a four-wheeler,” he said.

Most of SAR’s expenses involve replacing or maintaining equipment essential to the team’s operations, and volunteers are reimbursed for fuel. Vora said the county’s SAR is looking to replace one of their three-quarter ton trucks soon, which would cost around $20,000, according to Hawkins.

However, Vora is hoping to save money on repair and maintenance once the construction of a new SAR equipment building is finished. The building will be located on land donated by the City of La Grande near B&K Auto Salvage & Recycling on Highway 203. While they haven’t broken ground yet, Vora and Hawkins both said they hope to begin construction this spring.

Although all labor will be completed at no cost by SAR volunteers, Hawkins said building materials will add up to about $50,000. But once it’s finished, the building will shelter the equipment from the elements, saving money in repair costs in the long run.

“At this point in time, we’re keeping our equipment at the county public works shops,” Vora said. “We’ve been saving for the last couple decades for this building.”

The SAR’s equipment storage building was first envisioned by Ralph Wilson, a dedicated search and rescue volunteer, who passed away in 2015. SAR plans to name the building “Ralph’s Place” in his memory.

Wilson was only one of the many volunteers who give their time to the county’s search and rescue efforts. Vora hopes House Bill 2503 will eventually lead to the state funding a portion of SAR’s operations, in order to better support volunteers.

“The Sheriff’s Office and the county definitely support us to the extent that they’re able to, but search and rescue is an expensive (operation) and right now our volunteers essentially do things out of the goodness of their heart — provide their own equipment and pay for all of their own training,” Vora said. “As we get more funds, being able to pay to send volunteers to training or bring instructors to us would be hugely valuable.”