Haines is a hub of hiking, backcountry skiing, hunting, and other activities that get people out of town, off of the road, and into the woods or water. But until recently, there hasn’t been an official, organized search and rescue group to assist law enforcement if one of those activities goes wrong.
“Imagine yourself in a horrible situation and then ask yourself what if nobody came,” says fire fighter Tim Holm.”By a lot of medical standards we are already it the wilderness even standing in town. So when we go down the road and decide to take a river trip or a lake trip or an ocean trip, we’re really out there around here and it’s a need of the community that I believe we need to fill.”
Still, this community has been lacking a formal search and rescue group until recently. One started to come together around three years ago. J.R. Churchill says it began with the Alaska State Troopers.
“They felt as though they really wanted somebody, a group of people that was trained and knew what they were doing, certified that they could feel comfortable to call on to make those trips,” says Churchill.
But, that never really took off. Zach Tarleton is part of the search and rescue group. He says at first it was less organized and generally, the troopers would just end up calling firefighter Jenn Walsh.
“And asking for her to find qualified people,” says Tarleton. “As a private citizen more or less,” adds Churchill.
“Yeah, who are your friends that have skills that could go do this,” says Tarleton.
Then, last year Walsh says she was approached by Trooper Andrew Neason. Together, they wanted to try to fill a gap in emergency response.
“After a number of calls,” says Walsh. “I mean just too many calls where he didn’t have somebody to call.”
It also helped fill what the fire department saw as a gap in their coverage.
“We had broken bones and bear maulings and all of these things where boat rides, helicopter rides, places an ambulance couldn’t get,” says Holm. “And we need people that are capable of going out there, getting those people, bringing them back to the ambulance and bridging that gap.”
According to Walsh, the ambulance crew has been instructed not to respond to calls off of the road system, because that is outside of the fire department’s insurance coverage.
“Well what are we going to do? As Tim said, we are not going to wait for patients to drag themselves out of the wilderness and to a road,” says Walsh.
That’s where search and rescue comes in. They were able to organize as an independent group under the umbrella of the fire department. That gives them nonprofit status and a place to organize. So far, they’ve gotten 24 members with many different certifications and skill sets. When a call comes in, they use the messaging service Nixle to contact volunteers. Churchill says the goal is to be able to reach those most qualified to help in each particular situation.
“So you’re not putting out a blanket call to 20 people and then try to filter through what you need when you’re here,” says Churchill. “The list actually has who’s got what skill sets so you’re targeting the people that are going to be most important to that particular search and rescue.”
Here’s how it works now: a call comes into dispatch, dispatch calls the troopers, and the troopers decide whether to call in search and rescue. Walsh says when the group goes out they’re covered by the trooper’s insurance.
“We talk about how our liability, our workmen’s comp is covered by the state,” says Walsh. “We have basically become state employees when the trooper says ‘we need you.’”
Another thing they’re doing differently now is holding regular trainings for members. Tarleton says that makes a big difference, when you’re not necessarily getting regular search and rescue calls.
“We’re getting together, we’re meeting, we’re interacting, we’re training together and becoming more of a team, more of a well-oiled machine instead of just a group of people that have independent skills,” says Tarleton.
The group is part of the Alaska Search and Rescue Association, and they took up a collection from the 24 volunteers to pay for that membership. They don’t receive funding from the fire department. Now, Walsh says they’re looking for more money for equipment.
“We have a lot of people like J.R. said who have all their own training,” says Walsh “And they come to us highly skilled with certifications already. But for us to be using people’s personal gear puts us at too much risk.”
They’re hoping to explore whether borough funding might be available.
The group is actively recruiting new members. And, they’re looking for people that might not be interested in going out on search and rescues, but that have a resource to lend, like a boat or a plane.