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Volunteer rescuers shocked after Sheriff changes SAR posted on 03/01/2020

In a letter to Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteers, Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts announced changes to the operational structure, including bringing volunteers under a single and unified county team and creating a non-profit for the county’s SAR efforts.

“In the wake of recent litigation, at the recommendation of my county counsel, and after a comprehensive study, I have decided to make these changes,” Roberts wrote in the letter, noting the study was conducted by retired Undersheriff Matt Ellington.

“This reorganization is in line with state law that governs Search and Rescue in Oregon,” said Oregon Office of Emergency Management State Search and Rescue Coordinator Scott Lucas in a press release after the letter had been made public. “It’s considered best practices, as it follows the Sheriff’s Search and Rescue Advisory Council guidelines.”

The new structure is a departure from the way SAR operations have been handled in the county, which included a variety of citizen volunteer groups such as Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue (PNW), Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) and Mountain Wave Search and Rescue (WAVE). Some members of those organizations expressed surprise and dismay at the decision, including Mark Morford, Rescue Leader and Board Member of PMR.

“Mount Hood is an expert environment,” Morford told the Mountain Times, noting that team identity is an important aspect in SAR operations and his organization has built a national reputation for excellence since it began 40 years ago. “Why would you possibly throw that away and try to build something like that at taxpayer expense, that’s crazy.”

Russ Gubele, President of WAVE, said he was “disappointed and frustrated” about the decision, noting that a recent lawsuit over a rescue on Mount Hood had to do with a dispatch delay and not the volunteer teams.

“You have the best of the best in Clackamas County,” Gubele said, adding that citing the lawsuit for the change is “crazy.” “It seems unbelievable that you would want to dismantle that and start over with something new.”

As part of the restructuring, Roberts assigned Deputy Scott Meyers to SAR on a full-time basis and also assigned Lt. Brian Jensen as the new supervisor to oversee SAR. A subcommittee of experienced SAR volunteers will be formed to help determine logistics and develop short-term and long-term strategic plans.

A press release added that further details on the new structure would be revealed in the coming months.

The Mountain Times requested more information on the transition time for the new SAR operations, any budget ramifications from the change and if there will be any impact on the Sheriff’s Office’s ability to perform other duties in the county following the personnel shifts, but did not receive any response.

The Sheriff noted that volunteers who are certified by the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association can volunteer with the CCSO’s new structure through an application process, with a deadline of Tuesday, March 31.

Morford noted that the 75 members of PMR were unanimous in wanting to remain with the organization.

“Right now, our members are committed to staying together as a unit and working with the Sheriff to reach objectives while maintaining identity as a team,” he said. “Whatever the state of this discussion is, PMR is going to continue to train, we are going to keep our morale up and we are going to respond every time the sheriff asks us to respond to Mount Hood.”

Morford also suggested that recent conversations with the CCSO could yield a compromise, which appeared to be reached as of Wednesday, Feb. 26, when a press release noted PMR and CCSO “arrived at a mutual agreement in principle on general terms for a closer relationship between” the two organizations.

“This partnership will strengthen our existing integration of personnel and resources, and will make planning and mission response more efficient,” the groups announced in the press release. More details are expected to be released as discussions continue.

Gubele added it is hard to tell how many of WAVE’s approximately 100 members would be interested in applying for the county’s new SAR team.

“Nobody’s really saying one way or another, I suspect not a lot of people will,” Gubele said, adding that the organization was founded in the wake of the Oregon Episcopal tragedy on Mount Hood in 1986 and performs a variety of roles in the county and with other nonprofits and counties. “Anybody that has not been favorable or supportive of what is going on is likely not going to be accepted anyway.”

“For time being, we are all here and can be called upon,” he added. “We’re ready to go.”

CCSO Sergeant Marcus Mendoza noted in an email to the Mountain Times that the county is prepared to fulfill the obligation of SAR operations, which is a state mandated function of the CCSO.

“I want to make this clear to the public that if a SAR were to occur today the Sheriff’s Office is prepared and will respond as we have countless times in the past,” he wrote.

Hoodland Fire Chief John Ingrao told the Mountain Times in an email that the change in CCSO’s SAR operations would have no impact on their response.

“We provide the same level of response as we always have and we work well with CCSO on all emergency responses the two agencies have in our District,” he wrote.

Current Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association (OSSA) SAR-card holders interested in becoming members of the new team can complete a volunteer application and background-check process at https://www.clackamas.us/sheriff/sarteaminvite.html. The deadline for applications is Tuesday, March 31.

By Garth Guibord/MT

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