The detailed narrative history below is written by Todd "Doc" Bunger, Member #4
"As one of the most senior members of the organization and unofficial historian, I decided that I am going to try and post something historical each month about the organization so newer members can learn what they weren’t around for. Logically, for the first installment I will start at the beginning, as best I know it.
The first thing I want all to understand is although there are similar groups today, there is only one similar one that predates us, Wessex 4x4 Response in England. There were smaller 4x4 operations attached to Search and Rescue organizations but we invented this format. No other organization I know of works in the same conditions or as prolifically as we have. Many people lent a hand, big and small and this organization only exists due to many who have made it possible.
I’ll try and highlight the people and steps that made us who we are. I apologize if I forget someone while trying to tell the story, there have been many contributors. I also have to say I am somewhat telling this from my own perspective, having been in or around many of the major events. I am going to be as accurate as I can, good or bad, this is who we are and how we became in my opinion, the most professional and prolific 4x4 search and recovery group in the world."
Todd "Doc" Bunger, Member #4
The original inspiration for the group came when Craig (CJ) Lehman had heard about an off-roader who had to leave his rig on Red Cone due to a mechanical issue. When the gentleman returned the next day, it had been vandalized. CJ saw a need and understood that the off-road community is full of good people willing to use their rigs and time to help anyone in need. He was right, and that vision is why we are here.
On August 20, 2014 CJ started our original (no longer operational) Facebook page now searchable as Colorado 4x4 Rescue and Recovery Prior Dispatch Page. It was a Good Samaritan self-dispatching page. At first, anyone was able to post and ask for help. People would respond much as we do now but the page was public with no active administration. As an example of how that worked then, you can follow Houston Area Off-Road Recovery page on Facebook now. They currently use a similar operational model as us then.
The recoveries in those days were … scary. There was little organization, no training, no real rules and it WAS the Wild West. For my own first recovery, sometime around Jan 2015, I responded on my own to private land. I pulled out a diesel dually F350 that was framed out in mud. I did a double line pull with steel line that Matt Balazs still uses as a teaching example of compromised line that should not be used, while I was tethered to a fence post of unknown origin. In short, although I was successful, I broke every rule Matt Balazs has since taught us. This was typical back then.
Back then the informal format of the page and the way it operated on its own, promoted the informal nature of our recoveries. There was no real planning, no rig requirements and you usually had no idea who we were teaming up with. For me, I limited some of the variables by often working with the same people on recoveries.
The first level of control we added was to add administrators. CJ was trying to do it all and it became too much to monitor by one person. Initially, the admins were simply asked to approve posts before they went public, eliminating the spam and banter, focusing the page on official posts only.
The admins eventually processed requests asking for specifics and trying to eliminate non-off road based recoveries. This is also when we started suggesting types of rigs and equipment in the actual posts. This was still fast and loose compared to what we refined over time and now have, but it was a huge step forward.
The admins then were called that simply because they had administrator access to the page. This was essentially the core of the group and the admins defaulted as those who ran the group. There was a small group that did most of the work and helped shape the group then. Some of them stayed with the group for a long time and became far more involved like Matt Radder, Dan Arkulary, Talbot Wolaver and myself. Others like Jaquie Sparks, Bridget Buchan, Cody Daig and Troy Mynes, as well as others I cannot recall did amazing work but eventually moved on, having left it better for their time, determination and passion.
May 2016 is when we had our first major recovery. Today it would still be a challenge but not nearly as much as it was then. A Grand Cherokee rolled on Middle St. Vrain and landed on its driver’s door on wet ground. About 12 of us responded (I oddly had just come off the trail) and managed to recover it that night. It was a MAJOR growth point for us. We had never handled such a complex recovery and we learned many lessons that night. It was also the first time we used Ham radios to support a recovery. That’s when Jim Dixon emerged from behind the scenes and started becoming a resource for comms and eventually initial training.
The first couple years of the organization, then appropriately called a group, was a wild and fun time to be sure. The page grew fast with followers eventually peaking out over 2,000 if I recall. We had spectators there from around the world and inside some offices and companies we now know much better.
One of the most important things to remember is that no matter how far we go, how much we accomplish, the organization was built on the passion and dedication of many people. I am lucky enough to be one of the ones who became known, but many worked tirelessly behind the scenes or on recoveries and helped define us or in the earliest days, simply breathed life into an idea.
In Spring of 2016, our administrators (previous name for dispatchers) were contacted by a mother from Woodland Park who was concerned about her two sons who had gone into the back country just before a spring storm rolled in. The storm had dropped over a foot of snow and her kids were overdue. Because she wasn’t exactly sure where they had gone, a traditional foot based search was not an effective option. She was desperate for help.
A team of administrators brainstormed and came up with a way to approach the problem from our skill set. Information was gathered and they identified the most likely roads the boys would have taken into the back country, prioritizing the ones less traveled. A plan was developing and a team was formed through back channels, seeking our most skilled volunteers and capable rigs for deep snow conditions.
The plan was to find the truck the boys had driven. This location would then be given to the sheriff so foot based SnR teams could start a search from that point. Equipped with a plan that included prioritizing roads and a base command to send in vehicle teams as they arrived, CO4x4RnR’s first search operation was fielded. Ham comms were used in limited applications and CBs were depended upon between team members.
Although it took several hours and many teams coming in and out as available, the boys were found. They had found a cabin to overnight in, likely saving fingers and toes if not their lives. They were ill equipped for the storm that had hit. This started a discussion and progression that eventually led to the requirement of a 72 hour bag for all team members. It also started the discussion that eventually led to ham radios being a standard on recoveries for tracking and base communications that were both lacking.
This was our first action that drew the attention of the TV press and CJ Lehman was drafted into reluctant service as the press representative for a TV interview. I at the time, had done several interviews for other groups so I coached CJ from afar not able to leave work. CJ did a much better job than he felt he did but he decided this was not something he wanted to continue doing, even on behalf of the group he founded.
Soon after this operation and the press that followed, we received our second request for 4x4 SnR help. A similar scenario was playing out in Southern Colorado; two boys, a storm and a family desperate for help. Again, the same plan was put in place but there were many more roads to cover. Five teams mobilized to drive south from Denver as a pair of administrators created a much larger search grid.
This operation never got going as the sheriff in the area heard of our involvement and called us off, threatening to arrest us if we entered his county. (the county won’t be named) Although disappointed we would not be going south, we chose to protect our members from legal issues.
The outcome was unfortunate as one of the boys walked out the next morning, his brother having succumb to the elements in the night. They had been on one of the roads our admins listed as top priority. This left a scar on the members of the team that persists today. We lost one of the admins due to the weight of the outcome. It became obvious we would need to develop relationships with law enforcement and SnR teams if we were to be able to help save lives, building on our skills we were already developing.
2016 was also the time we started seeing some mild landmark events such as the first time a team executed two recoveries in the same day on separate calls. We also for the first time experienced team members calling a recovery off due to weather, making it clear that the team in the field had ultimate control, and dispatchers were in a support role once the team was fielded. This was also when we started seeing the value of scheduling recoveries, rather than burning out members with immediate call-outs even when not an emergency. Although those seem obvious today, these were learning edges for the org.
Along the way that year we also started seeking specific team members with specific skill sets we wanted on recoveries. This was very basic but it set the stage for skills training and team building in the future. It became clear that we wanted to raise the level of all response team members, rather than depend on and eventually burn out specific members for certain roles.
We knew that certain rigs would be needed for many recoveries and this would exclude others but we wanted to make all the members as skilled as possible, to raise the level of skills regardless of vehicle. This was also when we started seeking ride-alongs for members who had desire to help but not always the vehicle to go on the mission.
We identified that recovery skills training was needed and wanted for our recovery volunteers. Unfortunately, off-road recovery skills were not an affordable or common area of training available to the public then.
Jim Dixon was tapped to start that process through Colorado 4x4 Basics. A small number of us attended a one day training up north, teaching the basics of safety but mostly showing us how much we as members and a group we needed to learn. Upon completion of the training, it was clear we needed a comprehensive training program for all our volunteers. Protection of our volunteers started coming to the front and the wild west days of recoveries were soon to end.
Another watershed event that happened that year was that CJ and Matt Radder met Matt Balazs at the Expedition Colorado event. Although this was not the start of a training relationship, it was the start of a professional and developmental relationship. We had much to do before we would be organized enough for Matt Balazs to step in. The relationship that started that day though, was one of the most influential and important in the organization’s history.
The events of 2016 made it clear that protection of our volunteers needed to become paramount. In the first response community, the first priority is the safety of the individual team member, second is your teammates, third is the requesting party. We learned that we could only serve the public by first protecting our volunteers. The best ways to do that, was skills training and to become a non-profit.
Perhaps the most comprehensive change that started that year, due to the SnR deployments and the growing sense that we were on the cusp of something big, was the need to become prepared and organized. We had no idea how hard that would be and no idea how far reaching that process would go. It also meant technology would come to the front, sometimes too much, but it also became where we grew the most and defined our operations.
CJ and Matt Radder did a lot of behind the scenes research and developed a plan for where we should go, and what model to try and follow and adapt to our form. That research started before the first BOD meeting. The die was cast that a lot of work would be needed to get where we are today.
By then we were averaging close to 100 missions a year and we were starting to understand that we had to become organized since we were already in demand. There was no formula to follow, nor other teams we could ask for advice. We would have to invent the organization from the ground up.
As the early years of Colorado 4x4 Rescue and Recovery had been characterized by fast growth and expanding roles, the next step would be about graduation from a Good Samaritan group to a non-profit organization. We had already reached a point of averaging over a call-out a week, rivaling the busiest SnR teams in the state and more active than many.
As mentioned in the first installment, Craig (CJ) Lehman founded CO4x4RnR as a Good-Samaritan group on August 20th, 2014, operating through an un-administered Facebook page. He and Matt Radder discussed what needed to happen to take the group to the next stage and offer some level of legal protection to those who volunteered for service. The only logical next step was to become a 501(c)3 non-profit. This meant there needed to be a Board of Directors.
The Search and Rescue roles we had been asked to fill showed that there was need for further organization and a formal structure was necessary. This meant By-Laws and Policy and Procedure. This also meant that we needed money.
Although we had accepted donations in the early days it was often in the form of the requesting party paying for gas for the volunteers. There had been no formal banking plan but the formation of a charity would obviously demand one.
When CJ looked for those he wanted to be on the first board of directors, he looked both to those who were invested and active recovery members, as well as those who had specific skills that would be needed. He contacted several of us to meet with him so five of us met for coffee at the Starbucks in Northfield. The hand picked group was told what the purpose of the meeting was and we set about defining what would become the organization today.
Part of the meeting was a presentation of the reasons for forming a c3 charity. This was chosen to both encourage donations but also put us on the same legal footing as traditional SnR teams we hoped to work with. It also importantly offered the volunteers a level of protection, the BOD being the main focus of the organization if legal issues arose.
What was clear, was that we would need to fill the required roles of BOD members in order to become a Non-Profit. The original BOD consisted of five members.
Craig (CJ) Lehman – President
Matt Radder – Vice President
Talbot Wolaver – Secretary
Dan Arkulary – Treasurer.
Todd Doc Bunger – Public Relations
CJ and Matt had been running most of the group to that point so their titles only formalized their roles they were already filling very well. Dan was an active recovery member when he wasn’t helping to run a bank so he was the natural choice for treasurer. I had press experience so I was asked to fill the role that was more intended to be PIO, than PR, but I felt that we would need to grow through affiliations and out reach would be needed. Although Talbot was reluctant to fill the role of Secretary, I was happy to have him on-board since he was also my frequent recovery partner.
During the meeting, we discussed what we hoped to see the organization do in the future in order to set goals for ourselves. CJ was adamant that the organization progress to a point that we had actual members and member only recoveries to raise the level of skill on all teams. Matt was determined to build off the Search and Rescue role we had filled, having been on both teams and in field in Woodland Park. I wanted us to become partners with the Sheriffs SnR teams and USFS offices, developing professional associations for co-deployment and mutual support.
In order to file for the Non-Profit, we needed money. The only way to raise the needed money was for the original BOD members to give money to the org, not yet a charity. $600 came from most of the BOD members to cover the filing cost. This is where the initial $150 membership dues came from, the same that was donated by the founding members.
We identified that there were many steps ahead of us to get where we wanted to go. With input from Jim Dixon, Matt Radder largely wrote our original By-Laws. I wrote most of our original Policy and Procedure and Dan took on the 501(c)3 filing. We knew we would have to have members and training in place before we could secure insurance, but we had no idea how to do that at that point.
In order to start the paperwork, we also needed to choose a name. Although the name we all know was what the group had always been known as, we could change the FB page easily but changing the org name after filing was not as simple. We discussed options and although it was a bit cumbersome, we already had a strong reputation as CO4x4RnR, so we chose to stick with it.
We set some procedures at that time and also limits. The montra, ‘we fill the gap between a commercial tow company and Search and Rescue’, was defined in that meeting. It was also needed to market us to other first response organizations.
We felt we needed to start marketing ourselves which would require money. We needed the tools of marketing such as a canopy, business cards and a website but one thing we could use that was free, was a catch phrase. All faces looked at me as the newly minted PR guy and out came, “We Recover the Rockies”. It was voted on and approved.
Although there were many things we knew we needed, the immediate issues of the day had been identified. Late in the day as the coffee ran low, we sat back and wondered if
we were killing the group by trying to step up to become a non-profit, or if we had taken the first step towards establishing a whole new type of emergency response organization.
Dan handled the 501(c)3 filing on his own. It was only found out later that he also took on some additional costs to push it through. He never accepted the check from the org when those expenses were found out. Talbot only remained a BOD member a couple months, finding it was not for him but he remained an active and depended upon recovery volunteer for months to come.
From that meeting came the core of the organization for the foreseeable years. Others would come in and fill roles that lasted years as well soon after, as leadership changed.
What we didn’t know then, was the amount of growth and the hours of work that would come with it.
What followed was some of the most important work any of us had done to that point, understanding that if we fulfilled the visions we had developed, the org would stand alone as a pioneer and leader. We figured it would take a lot of time to build the organization, but we underestimated. In reality it took close to 2,000 hours a year from each of the early BOD members, including going on recoveries as well. Burn out was the biggest risk, often exacting its toll. The BOD would see turn over, original members stepping out and new ones bringing their enthusiasm with them to new roles.
Much of the second half of 2016 was the BOD waiting to hear that we had been approved for the 501(c)3 filing or would have to raise money to resubmit. The BOD held off on announcing the progress until we had met that milestone, wanting to assure the volunteers
that that hurdle had been cleared and we were advancing. Meanwhile, we set about formalizing the structure and visions we had laid out in the original meeting.
The winds of change started blowing right after the first BOD meeting. The BOD met every month as we set up a bank account and developed plans for taking the informal Facebook page people only had to follow, to a legitimate first response organization. We wanted insurance, closed membership that included training, membership in honored organizations that would put us in touch with other organizations we hoped to support and become a leader in the field. The problem was, no one had done it before, in a 4x4 based organization.
I started researching on-line and found several similar ideas around the globe. There is Wessex 4x4 Response in England, and King County SnR in Washington has a 4x4 division. There are professional organizations in the Southwest as well as Australia and there were informal groups like our original group scattered about. Nothing other than King County and Wessex was close to what we wanted to become. We would have to invent 4x4 Rescue and Recovery. We also learned that year we needed to grow, and grow fast.
On August 8th, 2016 the now well known phone number went live through Google voice and business cards were printed. This would ring several BOD members’ phones as well as the administrator’s (original names for dispatchers) phones. At that time, there was a lot of overlap in administrators and BOD.
In September, it was formally announced that a BOD had been established and that we had officially become a 501(c)3 non profit. We also made known our vision for the future, outlining goals and timelines as well as required steps to reach them. This was received both with excitement and groans. The future was becoming more formal and professional so the Wild West days were officially ending. This was hard for some volunteers to take but others saw the vision and wanted to be a part of it.
This official announcement freed up the org to start reaching out to the emergency management community. After a day of wheeling on my home trail, Argentine Pass, I stopped in the Clear Creek Sheriff Department to meet the Sheriff there. I sat down with a reluctant but curious Sheriff to introduce him to the org. I was honest about our progress as well as our aspirations and our limitations. He was intrigued, but wisely, also leery.
The Good-Samaritan Facebook nature of the org at that time was a clear concern. The last thing any first responder needs is cowboys in the field of Emergency response. At the end of the discussion, he was happy to know about us and asked that I personally text him when we sent a team into his county, and when they were clear again.
This was a major step forward for the organization as we realized the Sheriff was both in support of our ideas and efforts, but wanted to monitor us to make sure we were
responsible. We knew we needed to up our game and accelerate our timeline. A potential major advocate in the field was now paying close attention.
In November we received a call in the middle of the business day for a seemingly normal recovery. When the team deployed to recover the vehicle, no one anticipated the lessons we would soon learn. Matt R led a team near the top of Argentine pass where a Toyota had slid off the side of the trail. This was a normal, ‘side-off’ recovery but it had a new twist for us, it was above tree-line and next to a snow bank, limiting trail access. The meeting of Matt Balazs allowed us to borrow a new tool for us, a Pul-Pal. With the tool in hand(s), the team set out.
The recovery was normal until a buzz started in the afternoon among the administrators. Derek Gustafson had become our weather watcher and he could see a major storm headed for the team, but they were not in cell range. No one could warn them of the storm headed at them, coming from behind the ridge. Ham radios were not standard at that time.
I had just gotten off work and I knew the trail system well so I volunteered to head out. The team on scene saw me rushing to the recovery scene but had no idea why. As I arrived on scene, the temperature was over 60 and most were in t-shirts. We stopped the recovery for a few minutes and talked about what to do; we had less than an hour.
The team became far more deliberate but expedient and moved the rig up the mountain. It wasn’t long before those who had winter gear had to put it on and some people without were rotated in and out of the rigs to stay warm in the wind as the storm pushed over the ridge line, starting first with rain.
As the RP vehicle came back to the road surface, the team was able to start freeing up rigs. As they did, the rigs were backed down the shelf road to save time as the storm hit. By the time the RP vehicle was on the road, it was below freezing, snow had fallen and visibility was quickly dropping.
The lessons we learned were these: All team members had to have full winter gear on every recovery so no one becomes endangered no matter the conditions. We had to start establishing Ham comms as standard, which would take time. Weather had to be a constant variable to be tracked and communicated to the teams in the field. We also wanted a Pul-Pal since it was the only way that recovery was accomplished at the time.
By the time the team reached pavement, there was 4 inches of snow on the ground. The trip home on I-70 was absolutely treacherous, Matt R and myself making much of the trip east on the interstate in 4-low, weaving through stuck and sliding vehicles. By the end of the day, there was over a foot of snow in Georgetown. We learned that even highway closures had to be monitored and planned for when we sent teams into the field. We got out just ahead of the closure.
The team got lucky that day, a major winter storm landing on-top of the team while operating on a shelf road around 13,000 feet. We vowed that the organization would grow, to make sure our teams were much better prepared. Much of the future work was to protect our members in the field. We determined, we would never become the problem first responders needed to solve.
2016 closed out as a momentous year with major changes and establishing the visions for the future we now see as standard. The year had included our first two calls for Search and Rescue work, one being successful. Our first foray into training taught us how much we needed to learn. We felt we dodged a bullet on a recovery that could have become far more dangerous very quickly, teaching us many lessons about managing recoveries safely. We made first professional contact with a first responder. The biggest single event that year changed the Good-Samaritan group into a 501(c)3 charity, aiming at becoming a first response organization in support of the existing organizations to take some of the load off of SnR teams; becoming a force multiplier.
Although less obvious then, the agreement I had with the Clear Creek County Sheriff was a major growth force for us. The sheriff there was one of the most respected in the state and he wanted a text, no matter the hour. So for the following year he and I were aware of every team’s status in Clear Creek County; there was over 120. We grew, a lot.
The organization was eager to move in the new direction and started planning for the day we would have enough money to buy org equipment, fill the communications gaps with radio relay and throw a Thank You banquet for the volunteers who do so much of the work. At the end of 2016, those were lofty goals considering we had only about $1,000 in the bank.