The quick answer is: the volunteers and the taxpayers of La Plata County.
To arrive at that quick answer, you must understand a few things:
1. The County Sheriff, per State Statute, is responsible for search and rescue in the County. The Sheriff is also responsible for public safety, the jail, court security and wildfire, but those are separate topics.
2. La Plata County Search and Rescue (LPCSAR) is a non-profit, self funded organization that performs search and rescue at the direction of the Sheriff
3. Butch Knowlton, a Lieutenant with the Sheriff’s Department and Emergency Manager has been delegated by the Sheriff to direct search and rescue operations for La Plata County.
4. The Sheriff does not receive money to perform Search and rescue. The Sheriff does have a small amount in his budget for search and rescue since state grants to LPCSAR go through him and external costs for search and rescue are paid by him.
When you are lost or hurt outside the reach of an ambulance and someone calls 911 the operators call Sheriff’s deputy of the district where you might be. That deputy decides whether to continue the interview or to research the issue (might look for your car, etc.) or the deputy may pass the call to Butch. Butch continues the interview and starts the volunteers moving if necessary.
The county office of emergency management helps to verify locations and area of interest and will often build maps and establish communications.
Then the volunteers go to work. Sometimes it’s a handful expert technical rescue personnel and sometimes it’s as many ground pounders as we can get. Sometimes we have to hire a helicopter or snowcat to help. Incidents may be over quick with only a few man (and woman)-hours and sometimes we log several hundred man-hours.
If they are volunteers, how do they pay?
With their time, energy and personal equipment on incidents, with the hundreds of hours of training and preparing, and by taking off of work or from their family to risk their well being for someone else’s. The volunteers are not compensated for their time. Wear and tear on their equipment is theirs to bear. If the rescued person has a CORSAR card, sometimes we can pay for fuel.
How do the Taxpayers of La Plata County pay?
By money in the County budget generated through taxes being dedicated to pay for outside expenses during searches. The Sheriff pays for the helicopter, the aircraft, the snowcat, the food and support for the volunteers and lost or broken equipment. The only money the Sheriff recovers is through the Colorado Outdoor Search and Rescue Fund. The hiking cards, hunting licenses and off-highway vehicle registrations pay into a fund that reimburses the Sheriff for those extra costs IF the person or their family has paid into the fund. If the sheriff can't use CORSAR ro reimburse costs, the sheriff eats the costs.
Does Search and Rescue bill for rescues?
No. Never, Not even once.
Does the Sheriff bill for rescues?
Not really, but also not never. Once in the last 35 years. Only in an extreme case of deception, was anyone ever charged in La Plata County for a rescue that turned out to be unfounded on purpose.
Does someone rescued ever have to pay?
Yes. Ambulances bill on their own for ground and air transport. The feds including USFS, BLM, BIA, BOR can charge you under the right circumstances for negligence and trespassing or other things. Private land owners could come after someone in a civil case. Ski resorts, especially those with Federal Land Leases, can recover costs.
Please think hard about what you do in the back country:
Be prepared, act within your limits, back out when you should, help others in need, pay into the CORSAR fund and get everyone else to (the money is obligated by statute to only go to SAR), and lastly – be thankful to the volunteers that brave the terrain and elements to help everyone come home safely.