In March, news hit the volunteer search and rescue community that Clackamas County Sheriff's Office had a plan to form a unified nonprofit operation under the umbrella of the sheriff's office.
This would mean hundreds of trained search and rescue volunteers' lives could change.
Under the original plan, the new SAR structure would eliminate and replace the existing volunteer organizations, which have worked with the county for decades, including Mountain Wave SAR, Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue, North Oregon Regional Search and Rescue and Portland Mountain Rescue. It also would downsize the number of volunteers available in the pool for rescue missions since anyone not chosen for the new team would lose their Oregon State Sheriffs' Association (OSSA) SAR-card.
Since the March announcement, progress toward a unified operation has been slow, both to the benefit and anguish of volunteer groups that have yet to be contacted by the sheriff's office about striking a deal. Some, however, have already drafted letters of intent to continue operations under the Sheriff's Office's umbrella. Those now include Portland Mountain Rescue and Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue.
Sheriff Craig Roberts met with Portland Mountain Rescue on Feb. 26 and "arrived at a mutual agreement, in principle, on general terms for a closer relationship between Portland Mountain Rescue and the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office," according to a joint statement from the two entities.
Portland Mountain Rescue is composed of about 85 volunteers and focuses on rescues on Mount Hood.
The group Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue (PNWSAR) has signed a letter of intent to enter into an agreement with the sheriff's office. PNWSAR is composed of about 80 to 100 members.
"Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue is pleased to announce the first step in formalizing our longstanding relationship with the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office (CCSO) through a mutually drafted Letter of Intent," the PNWSAR board said in a statement released June 17. "Clackamas County is one of the most visited counties in the country, and it takes highly trained teams like Pacific Northwest Search and Rescue to accomplish these rescue missions safely. This letter of intent is a significant milestone, as we partner together to develop constructive solutions to support search and rescue in Clackamas County and the greater Pacific Northwest. PNWSAR looks forward to a robust ongoing conversation with CCSO and all the search and rescue teams in the region to create a unified response to visitors and citizens in need."
The sheriff's office voiced similar optimism about the relationship going forward, saying "Clackamas County Search & Rescue looks forward to many more decades of partnership with PNWSAR, wherever search expertise is needed."
While these two groups are celebrating partnerships with the sheriff's office, long-established search-and-rescue organization Mountain Wave Search and Rescue still awaits a conversation with the department.
Mountain Wave founder Russ Gubele said the group had a meeting on the books with the sheriff months ago, which was canceled and has yet to be rescheduled.
"We have been requesting a meeting about this with the sheriff for quite some time," he said. "We have heard that they will likely reach out to us at some point."
Gubele speculated that the reason many groups like Mountain Wave are still certified and occasionally called out has to do with low turnout to the Clackamas County Search & Rescue's initial call for applicants in March. That said, for many search and rescue volunteers, the last few months have mostly been business as usual.
"We continued to work and provide high-level service where we can," he said. "We're certainly here to help."
The main difference, Gubele said, besides the looming uncertainty, is that "teams like Mountain Wave are not used nearly as much as they used to be."
"As far as I know, PMR and PNWSAR just have letters of intent," Gubele added. "We don't even have a letter of intent. We still have no idea what the situation is for us. We've never received formal complaints from the sheriff's office. It's always been a very collaborative and cooperative relationship. We'd be happy to continue working with them."
However, Gubele remains hopeful that within the next few weeks Mountain Wave will receive some contact from the sheriff's office and is glad that PMR and PNWSAR have been successful in their agreements with the department.
"I'm very happy for them," Gubele said. "PNW is a fantastic search and rescue team. They are a true benefit to our region. If I were lost, I'd want them looking for me. I'm just very disappointed because we've put a lot of effort, money and resources in over the years."
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