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Clackamas County Sheriff's Office to unify rescue operations, eliminate volunteer organizations

PMG FILE PHOTO - The new structure for SAR would eliminate and replace the existing volunteer organizations, which have worked with the county for decades, including Mountain Wave SAR and Portland Mountain Rescue. Hundreds of trained search and rescue volunteers' lives could change as of March 31 because of a decision by the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office.

Last week, Sheriff Craig Roberts announced his intention to form a unified nonprofit search and rescue operation beneath the umbrella of the sheriff's office.

This new structure for SAR would eliminate and replace the existing volunteer organizations, which have worked with the county for decades, including Mountain Wave SAR and Portland Mountain Rescue. This would also downsize the size of the volunteer pool available for rescue missions as anyone not chosen for the new team will lose their Oregon State Sheriffs' Association (OSSA) SAR-card.

The new plan comes in the aftermath of a recent settlement between the county office and the family of a late Seattle man, John Thornton Jenkins, 32, whose death was the result of a 600-foot fall on the Hogsback section of Mount Hood's south face on May 7, 2017.

In February 2018, the family filed a suit against Clackamas County, claiming Jenkins' death could have been avoided if the rescue helicopter arrived on the scene sooner. Jenkins' family initially asked for $5 million in non-economic damages and $5 million for loss of future income and alleging that the delay in Jenkins' rescue was a case of negligence and wrongful death. The county settled with the family for a total of $25,000 out of court and a $5,000 donation to Portland Mountain Rescue, which responded to Jenkins' fall and whose team members stayed by Jenkins while he was removed from the scene.

"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," says a recent statement from Roberts.

The comprehensive study was completed by retired Undersheriff Matt Ellington.

"He was hired to provide me with a full assessment and to make recommendations on SAR best practices," Roberts said. "He brings considerable management and SAR experience to this endeavor."

After analyzing the county's situation, Ellington made the following recommendations to the sheriff:

n "Bring SAR volunteers under a single, unified Clackamas County Sheriff's Office Search & Rescue Team, with specialized teams operating under that banner."

n "Have all SAR volunteers go through a background check and a selection process."

n "Have all volunteers train and abide by Sheriff's Office policies, while developing additional SAR-specific policies."

n "Maintain records of all training to ensure compliance."

n "Create a nonprofit 501(c)(3) for Clackamas County Search & Rescue."

n "Provide training and equipment."

"The research says forming this team is the right move for Clackamas County residents," said Roberts. "Clackamas County search-and-rescue missions are rising. The county population has risen by over 43,000 people in the past decade. Local response times and communication will improve with a single, dedicated team.

"Search and rescue in Clackamas County involves much more than Mount Hood — it's demanding and complex, across wilderness and urban environments. If a major disaster happens here, this will allow the quick deployment of SAR resources dedicated to Clackamas County."

According to Mountain Wave founder and leader Russ Gubele, the new organization will comprise 150 search and rescue volunteers and be "a significant cut back."

"I can't imagine how cutting the numbers back that far is helpful," Gubele added. "It's pretty demoralizing for our folks. We've spent 28 years building in the Northwest and training rescuers."

On average, according to Gubele, Mountain Wave performs upwards of 100 missions a year, providing communications, equipment and transportation to agencies the group partners with.

"All of those things are just getting thrown aside and we're taking a step backward," he said.

Gubele expressed concern over how the county notified volunteers and organizations like Mountain Wave as well, saying "nobody came to us to ask about help with the liability issues," referencing the litigation said to have prompted the change, and that the message addressed to volunteers was not ever sent to him when it went out earlier this month.

Gubele said he first heard of the possible restructuring in November 2019, when a deputy mentioned it. Then, in December or January, the county asked to meet about a new memorandum of understanding.

"Nobody knows when this actually goes into effect," Gubele explained. "But after March 31, everybody's cards will be revoked."

Roberts released last week that "organizational details and an official launch date for Clackamas County Search & Rescue will be revealed in the coming months as the workgroup's planning moves forward."

"In the report there are several things that could be done," Gubele added. "But they're only looking at one. (Ellington also) warned the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office that they don't have the money, personnel or vehicles to do this."

Volunteers are being encouraged to fill out an application at to become members of the new team by March 31, but Gubele fears few of his colleagues will be chosen because of Mountain Wave's vocal opposition of the new plan.

"I think few people will apply because they realize the sheriff's office has very little equipment and they feel they won't get chosen because they've been 'outspoken,'" he explained. Gubele said he thinks most people won't be chosen "unless you are a person totally in favor of what they want."

"They're going to lose a lot of expertise," he added.

Also in disagreement with the new plan is Clackamas County Board of Commissioners Chairman Jim Bernard, who has been posting regularly to social media in support of volunteer groups like Mountain Wave.

"If it ain't broken, what's he trying to fix," Bernard noted on his Facebook page. "(Mountain Wave SAR is) another important resource providing rescue services for free regionally. Made up of professional volunteers willing to risk their own lives to bring your lost or injured family home safe."

Additionally, Bernard has acknowledged a need for a "mutual agreement," but said, "We all want the same thing. Save lives. The question still unanswered is 'why?' There was a need for a mutual agreement but why outside the county and why dissolve these professional organizations? How would the Sheriff like another county's Sheriff controlling how he does his business? This actually would increase our liability."

"The nonprofit will allow for public donations to buy new equipment and train volunteers," Roberts assured in a recent statement. "The power of pooling our resources is enormous."

"Our research says this is the right way to go — it's a model that's raised the bar for search and rescue in other counties," added Roberts. "We hope card-carrying volunteers all join the new unified team. These are valuable working relationships that have saved many lives. We look forward to bringing those volunteers under one umbrella and making those working relationships even closer and stronger. It's the right move for Clackamas County."

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