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.
2017 was a year of behind the scenes work and a public shift in our perception. In 2016 we became a 501(c)3 because we wanted to start protecting our members and legitimize our organization moving towards a first responder organization. In the original BOD meeting one of the goals was to be able to support Search and Rescue teams with our specific skills. Part of that goal was met with the non-profit filing but the real need was training, to become better equipped and to become better known among the public and first responders.
It was also a year of foundational change. After working for months on and launching our initial website, our founder Craig Lehman decided it was time to move back east to be near his family. The organization was his vision and was started by his leadership. In March of 2017, he stepped down and after much discussion; Matt Radder became the new President. Todd Bunger became VP along with his PR role. Dan Arkulary remained as treasurer but it was time to add new members to the BOD.
In April, Jim Dixon and Jeff Schafer were added to the BOD. Jeff had become a very active member was among the most enthusiastic responders. He was eager to learn and improve the organization with his enthusiasm. Jim was well known throughout the off-road community and educated and experienced in land use issues and conservation. In order to build bridges with USFS and BLM, we needed to become better in land use related issues. Jim was also an early trainer for some members so he was already invested in the professionalization of the organization.
In March of 2017, we were also contacted by Chris Breidenbach at The Edge 4x4 Automotive. He was interested in supporting the organization by becoming a sponsor. This was our first major affiliation in the community and a huge endorsement considering Chris’ standing in the 4x4 community. He became our first sponsor and laid a foundation for others to follow.
With building demand and more complex recoveries being sent to us, we tapped into a resource that Craig and Matt had fostered, a friendship with, Matt Balazs from On Trail Training. In April of 2017 saw the first graduating class from On-Trail Training-Recovery Skills 1. The early graduates would form the nucleus of much of the future of the org.
Volunteers cycled through training as fast as On Trail Training could schedule them. Our goal then was to get better and safer using On Trail Training to establish us as among the most qualified recovery organizations in the world. As Matt Balazs became a certified recovery skills trainer through I4WDTA, we aspired to work at a level they and he could be proud of. It was a lofty goal.
This was also a year that we decided to start marketing ourselves at popular events in the 4x4 calendar. We used still very limited resources to purchase a canopy and print pamphlets. Early on, this garnered another of our most valued relationships, Outer Limit Supply. We wanted to make sure that all of our teams deployed carried a first aid kit. Travis Hurley and CO4x4RnR teamed up to personalize Grade A first Aid kits.
These kits became the foundation of our first aid preparedness and continuing education for top tier responders.
The five BOD members set out to address the growing pains that the organization was seeing, including an increase in calls and requests for help. The primary struggle then was having coverage for the administrators who were fielding the calls. Burn out had become the biggest issue in the organization. We were becoming a victim of our own success. We would have to get better, or burn down.
At one point, we were down to two people covering most of the calls and it felt like we could not handle our mission. A decision was made to form a dedicated team with specific training and establish criteria for what recoveries we were qualified to handle.
We started recruiting members for a new defined discipline; CO4x4RnR Dispatchers. The org. posted a request and defined the job; the public responded. Among those who stood head and shoulders above the others was Carleen Smeaton. She was approached and asked to take on a new role, Director of Dispatch. Immediately she took the reins of dispatch as the newest BOD member, initiating training and forming new criteria for sending teams into the field.
The other aspect of the org that went into high gear at that time was to reach out to professional originations, from USFS and BLM to Sheriffs and Search and Rescue organizations. Gilpin Country Sheriff was contacted and USFS Clear Creek Ranger District became a common phone call, establishing how they would like us to deal with off trail damage.
We were working hard to become a professional and responsible member of the Colorado High Country Response community. We knew where we wanted to go, who we wanted to be and by the middle of 2017, the BOD was working feverishly to achieve the goals we set out for the year.
We also started forming common alliances, frequently appearing in public events alongside Stay the Trail, Mile High Jeep Club and On-Trail Training. These co-appearances allowed each of the organizations to be represented by one another and an informal family of organizations formed. Also, Matt Balazs had become president of Stay The trail and I had been asked to join their BOD. These associations helped all, connecting and cementing friendships between the organization, and the off road community.
In order to support and encourage the use of ham radios among the members, and off-roading in general, Jim Dixon started a weekly ham radio net. This helped members become comfortable broadcasting on the air and procedure for emergency transmissions.
Seizing on the theme of the year, about ten members of the organization celebrated the three year anniversary of the org, by attending Wilderness First Aid. This was a two day, 19 hour course that set a new expectation for our top tier members. As the attending members saw it, the class was the how to training for the First Aid Kits from Outer Limit Supply. This started a push towards first aid training, being brutally taught that most of our recoveries were at least 2 hours from professional medical support.
It was an eye opener to those who attended. It also reflected a pattern, as most of those in attendance were either current or future BOD members including two presidents. Our gaze started to shift inwards, learning that we must train to take care of our own in the field remembering, we always wanted to be the solution, not a problem.
That summer also saw the loss of another original BOD member. Dan Arkulary finished the project he was working on, having been the point man on The Edge sponsorship and let us know he would be stepping down. He would remain a member but could no longer commit the time to the BOD it demanded. He wanted to spend more time at home with a growing family. We knew he would be missed but, luckily, Jeff Schafer was ready and had the training to step in right away, filling the role of treasurer.
The second half of the year would put us to new tests and the org would take chances to build its professional profile
As many of our most active members had passed through Skills 1 with On-Trail Training, it became clear that a more advanced skill level would benefit our members. The first Skills 2 class was offered in September of 2017. Among the goats head thorns of the Eastern Plains of Colorado, a full day of hands on work was offered and enthusiastically accepted.
The class included a full day of problem solving with moving targets as equipment was ‘disabled’ in the scenarios, challenging the teams to think and plan for the possible life threatening changes recoveries can experience. Teams used more equipment in complex recovery scenarios as well as made use of very few pieces to accomplish other recoveries. The day offered much more challenging and comprehensive instruction that was a game changer for our teams.
This class came right in time for our first high profile recovery. It was dramatic then and still today. The Radical Hill recovery started two changes that became more common; scouting and public stories about the work we do. Using the mistakes made and lessons learned both by the requesting parties and the org became a recurring theme of using our recoveries as a teaching tool for the org and the public alike.
This recovery was also finally picked up, after many outreach attempts, by local news. Radical Hill became our first formal news interview since our first Search and Rescue effort in Woodland Park.
The story garnered the organization a lot of attention and drove many donations to the organization permitting us to no longer worry about being overdrawn. Although we knew attention was a double edged sword, we knew that since we were inventing this form of response organization, publicity would help other agencies and the public alike, understand better what role we were filling in the first response community.
2017 also saw the formation of a more highly trained group within the organization that was designed to support traditional Search and Rescue efforts and perform stand alone work as we had done already. This team was called Search and Rescue-Emergency Support. Along with this effort came a new BOD member that specialized in high tech communications and tech integration.
After another Jeeping trip in the mountains, much like my drop in at Clear Creek County Sheriff, I stopped off at Alpine Search and rescue, and just walked in. I met Bruce Beckman who was intrigued with our mission and how we were going about it. I asked for an opportunity to present to their members about our mission, in their Skills for the Hills program. Bruce took it to their BOD and they approved. This was a major step, putting ourselves in front of one of the most respected SnR teams in the world.
Using several members to present their specialty, the presentation went very well, with only one question that we did not have the right answer for. We were still without Insurance. Jeff Schafer and I both worked for months trying to secure insurance but no one knew how to categorize the organization. Some claimed insurance was un-needed. We knew it was.
The most positive event of the evening at Alpine SnR came in the form of feedback from one of the most senior and decidedly the most grizzled Alpine SnR members in the room. He commented that we kept referring to our responders as volunteers. Based on the work the members were putting in, the training, and the body of work presented, he suggested we start referring to our people as ‘unpaid professionals’. It was one of the most lasting and impactful compliments we had ever received. We still call our members, unpaid professionals today and that compliment still moves me, he being the first peer to call us professionals
Another compliment came the following month on what would become a recurring appearance with Mile High Jeep Club. The intention was to recruit members from one of the oldest and the largest Jeep club in the nation. It was successful. At the end of the night, Mile High Jeep Club also presented the organization with a check for $500 to help us grow. That donation started a lasting association and cooperation between the two of us.
Also, and more valuable, that meeting recruited members who would eventually serve on the board and become some of our most trusted and consistent responders. That affiliation with Mile High Jeep Club nurtured a relationship that led to many years of collaboration and fund raising.
As fall set in, another lesson was learned through a recovery. We responded to a high elevation recovery above tree-line on Kingston Peak. We underestimated what was needed and made mistakes. For the first time, we had to leave a responder’s rig behind; framed out in snow. A storm rolled in before we could return so the determination of the org to get our member rig back became our biggest operation to date and one of the biggest ever for the org.
Although the recovery was successful, it was a very long day. The lessons learned from that operation still echo today. We learned to schedule medical support for long term ops at elevation and in harsh weather. We learned to schedule teams for rotated work. We learned to schedule back-up teams in anticipation of need and we learned to reach out to our first responder partners for easier responses, rather than working on our own. We had to mature.
2017 also saw the introduction of another BOD member, to try and come in and lighten the increasing load of the directors of the organization. Jason Strother joined the BOD and the help was very welcome.
By the end of the year, another step was made in insurance, when the org secured a basic level of insurance, still lacking full liability insurance.
2017 saw a dramatic increase in calls, pushing our teams in the field and newly formed dispatchers beyond what they had been. The year showed that we had to plan for continued growth. As we invented the type of organization we are so there was no path for us to follow; we had to invent it. Plans were made, and then adapted in the coming year. 2018, would make 2017 seem easy by comparison.
The year ahead was one that we hoped to stabilize and grow in a professional direction. What we didn’t anticipate was how much demand our growth would place on us.
The start of 2018 came with some of the best news we ever got. Jeff Schafer was able to use a contact to secure liability insurance. For those on the BOD, this was a wonderful turning point. We had been collectively holding our breath, hoping our training and experience would get our teams through without incident until we secured coverage. The BOD was the only real liability path, but this coverage gave the entire organization coverage.
The increase in funds we had received by increased exposure, made possible our first member’s banquet. Although a modest affair that was made possible with the help of a member from the Mile High Jeep Club, it fulfilled a dream the BOD had from long before, to honor and issue awards to our unpaid professionals.
The awards in the initial banquet were:
- President’s Award (For the member who stood out the most that year)
- Dispatcher Award (for the dispatcher who stood out the most that year)
- Lott Award (Awarded to the person who spent the most time in the field on recoveries) (named for Bryan Lott, first recipient)
- Training Award From On-Trail Training for the most improved field responder.
- Donkey Named Jack Award ( for the most embarrassing moment in the org that year)
Also at this banquet, the organization received another check from Mile High Jeep Club, in support of our efforts. At that time, it was the largest donation ever made to the organization and offset much of the cost of the banquet.
Soon after the banquet the year got going quickly. As one of the signs of times to come, the organization was tested by deploying teams on eight missions in 24 hours. This pushed all the limits we had, and the organization was forced to grow. For the first time, the organization found operational limits, with all active personnel filling needed roles, even with Matt Balazs aiding with dispatching by helping to organize teams. The organization withstood the onslaught and realized we had to become more efficient and prioritize recoveries; even turn some down.
The time had come to finally put the organization on professional footing and move our recoveries to members only. This was not a popular decision among many. It would be the last time we saw some of our long time and trusted members, not liking the idea of paying to work for free. We understood. It was the same model as most SnR teams and the only way we could legitimize ourselves, securing only the most determined to be trained and deployed. We wanted to progress from being good Samaritans, to legitimate first responders and worthy of being part of that community.
From a public relations perspective this was a great relief. Although the BOD was proud of most of our volunteers, our method used to build the organization was not professional and a mere shadow of the organizations we were hoping to emulate. This move was a must, to legitimize our organization and the entire BOD was relived when we could finally do it.
At this point I will say that one of the great challenges we had was to invent a first response group, having no model other than other groups that had traits of ours, but none similar to ours. Sitting in offices with Sheriffs and training facilities of very qualified and awarded SnR teams, I was humbled and it was one of the things that drove the BOD members to keep pushing professionalism and training, even if some volunteers resisted.
It was the most common topic during BOD meetings; “how do we accomplish that?” In many discussions I started with other first responders, we identified most with SnR teams. Although we mostly executed off-road recoveries, our mission was closest with SnR, but differed since we worked in vehicles. Not only would we be inventing the way to execute this mission, we had to teach the public and more importantly first responders how our services fit into the fabric of public service.
In simplest terms, we had to be industry leaders, pioneers and most importantly, a trusted tool that serves the public in times of need. Nothing less would achieve our goals.
Our mission became simple: Improve everyday to better serve our members, teams, deployment partners and public with the service, skills and professionalism they deserve.
As membership arrived, we had also announced that our ‘requests for volunteers’ would also go behind a wall onto a members only page once membership had grown enough. This had a downside since many of the followers of the dispatch page did so, to watch the recoveries unfold through updates. This meant the pubic would no longer be able to watch along. From a community standing it was a loss. From a professional standing it was an upgrade. From an insurance perspective is was a must.
Along with dues that covered skills 1 training at the highest level of membership, each member was issued a basic FRS radio for field communications among the teams. Some were also basic ham radios if the member was licensed but it offered a peek inside the world of better comms that we needed the members to invest in.
Another test, and our greatest exposure to date came in Mid-April. Although few people had heard the term before, Northeast Colorado was hit by a bomb cyclone. Our teams were paged and put on stand-by, waiting for a decision from the northeast corner of the state, 100 miles away. After much deliberation among those who have the burden of decision making with lives on the line, three Sheriff Offices activated CO4x4RnR. Our members rolled out, answering the call.
Five teams of two vehicles plus one SAR-ES team director went north to Sterling office of emergency management for briefing and orders. Starting around midnight, teams deployed to stranded motorists who had been blown off the road and snowed over. In 50+ MPH winds and white out conditions, CO4x4RnR was given permission to go behind road closures and waved through at active road blocks, in the dark and barren expanses of rural Northeast Colorado. Centered in the Akron area, teams moved through snow drifts and white out conditions where sometimes only code lights were visible.
Teams cleared every vehicle they found and reported on all the truck drivers who were staying with their rigs and loads, even though they had been blown off the road. Our training was paying off as our teams worked seamlessly with incident command. Our preparedness also paid off as we were well equipped to loan winter clothes to many we were extracting.
The team returned home on an empty I-76, closed to public traffic. The drive down the desolate and wind swept interstate was a reminder of the remoteness that the team and their requesting parties had been in. As the team passed the road closure, we turned off our emergency lights. Passing the mile lock back-up in the NE bound lanes, we felt like we were returning to town, victorious. It was humbling.
Over the previous five hours, 13 people and 3 dogs were recovered from the storm. Dozens of vehicles were inspected and cleared. SAR-ES’ first official mission was a massive success. During the night, using 800mhz radios issued by EMS meant other agencies had listened in. This increased our level of exposure to a whole new group, first responders.
The lone stressor of the night came when two separate teams were trying to break through snow drifts to reach a drifted over car that contained an infant. Matt Radder tried to break through drifts taller than his bumper, me pulling him back out repeatedly so he could try again. Similar was going on, on the east side of the road. We were relived when word was passed that CDOT was able to break through with plows.
Also in a dramatic change of professionalism, the agreement that had been in place since late 2016 with Clear Creek Sheriff office, was lifted. A new policy replaced it. The new plan was when we sent teams into Clear Creek County, our dispatchers would contact the dispatch center in Clear Creek County, notifying them our missions, location and status. Quickly after this, the same agreement was started with Gilpin County Sheriff office. We had officially become an asset listed in the databases for those counties.
In the days following our Bomb Cyclone deployment, the organization was again interviewed by the press, adding to the exposure for the org, and educating the public on our unique mission. The organization stood proud that the first time they had been paged out by the state, lives were saved. It had become clear we were on the right track.
In Mid-Spring we had also encountered growing pains in the form of being attractive enough to others that we had to defend the organization from an aggressive take over. It was not something we were prepared for, and it nearly cost the organization. Although we successfully defended the organization, it would not be the last time the organization would have to act to protect itself from the growth it was experiencing.
The first third of the year had been momentous and non-stop. The growth and complexity that often comes with it was starting to become obvious. Many members were becoming exhausted as the mission count rose quickly. The summer of 2018, would take us to new heights, literally.
The summer of 2018 was a wild one. It started on Memorial Day, fittingly, with a call for a challenging recovery in Buena Vista’s 4 Mile Area; a roll over. The roll over included a trailer which was a first for the organization. It also affirmed a new choice where we called the non emergency dispatch number for all operations in any county. Chaffee County was notified of our team and its operation. Memorial Day turned out to be a wonderful learning experience while a large team worked with On Trail Training on the deployment, learning the entire day long. It was also fun.
Soon after, we had another roll over recovery on Spring Creek, much closer to home and much easier.
Soon after, we got a call for another roll over this time on Mt. Antero, again in the Buena Vista region. Another call was made to Chaffee County Sheriff with details since the recovery was at nearly 14,000 feet. Chaffee County Search and Rescue North was notified of our mission and the size of our team, in case something happened. Lessons learned from our Kingston Peak recovery were put in action, with a scouting mission prior, a comms plan to work around the lack of cell service and lack of direct ham radio coverage. In addition, we put teams on timetables due to elevation and had an emergency plan for medical issues. It all worked.
In a far less dramatic step but one that reflected our longtime desire to show our dedication to trail conservation, we adopted the Yankee Hill Trail. This was one of the closest trails to Denver and by far the most frequent destination for our teams.
Mid summer also brought a major step forward for the org. We were asked to present at the Northern Colorado Emergency Management Meeting. This put us in front of many of the region’s emergency managers, presenting to them a mission report for the Bomb Cyclone deployment. We also showcased our strongest aspects and training, highlighting how many missions we had recorded. The presentation was a major success. Team members were awarded challenge coins and a personal thank you from the director as well as applause from the group. The experience was both humbling and rewarding.
In August, Co4x4RnR was presented with its greatest recovery challenge to date. A high profile accident occurred again in Chaffee County, on Iron Chest trail. It was the first recovery of the many hundreds to that date that involved the loss of life in the initial accident. The vehicle in question was 530 feet down a slope above St Elmo.
Three scouting missions were employed as well a division of labor in the form of planning by myself and operations headed by Eric Ross in accordance with ICS training that had started in the org. It was also the biggest co-deployment and cross organizational operation we had had. The mission included CO4x4RnR, CORE Trail Crew (then CORE), USFS, Chaffee County Search and Rescue North as well as close communications with Chaffee County Sheriff. The other aspect that was wonderful to see was the outpouring and support our crews received by the locals who became aware of our mission and the initial accident.
The mission became the epitome of the organization to that point. All aspects of the planning and operation worked. It involved over 25 people from the org on the first day and about 12 more from CORE and CO4x4rnR the following day. We also had the support of several others including monitoring via ham radio and medical supervision.
The on-line story of the recovery, largely because it included the loss and finding of a dog involved in the initial accident, was also the most read and shared story the organization had ever had. We became nationally known and started receiving donations from across the country. Another news story also followed, including stories in several papers.
This summer also marked a very busy public appearance schedule and filling enhanced roles in some of those events. The organization led trail groups and provided ham communication based coverage for Set Them Free and was on-call for All4fun with Mile High Jeep Club. 14er Fest in Buena Vista was also supported by trail leading and comms monitoring.
The organization saw the need for further in house training while also asking senior members to take on additional outside training. Internally, the organization started offering and asking senior members to attend driver and communication training as well as leadership training. Externally, senior members started taking FEMA 100, 200 and 700 level classes on-line and attending wilderness first aid (WFA). These were required for the SAR-ES team since they would be the most likely members to co-deploy in multi-agency deployments. They were strongly encouraged for the rest of the membership.
That summer also saw the stepping down of one of our early BOD members, Jim Dixon, due to both exhaustion and frustration. The pressures of administration of such a fast growing organization were taking tolls on dedicated members, causing internal friction, fracturing of roles, friendships, trust and responsibilities.
The organization was evolving quickly and becoming very public. Issues that came with professional responsibility were creeping into a relatively young, fast growing organization. The growth and the organization’s increasing profile were exacting a toll.
Late in the summer of 2018, we took part in cross training with Park County SnR. On Trail Training instructed Park County on driver skills, CO4x4RnR members helping with demonstrations. Park County returned the favor by training some of our members in navigating scree fields.
The end of summer also marked the official closure of our public dispatch page. With over 5,000 followers, the page offered much of the public the opportunity to watch the updates with each call-out. The move to a private page was one that many disliked, but as a professional organization, we had to make the change. Our goal was to model our own organization as much as made sense, to other successful models.
The last part of the year offered further validation that our work was worth the efforts of all the unpaid professionals in every role. With the increase in profile, came further inquiry from other organizations and agencies.
The organization was contacted by a reality show producer tied to one of the most successful technology based shows. She was seeking subjects for a possible new show featuring the modification of trucks for special purposes. She became aware of us from the Iron Chest recovery. Although the interest was flattering the BOD knew that such a presence would forever change the organization and we would deviate from our mission. We respectfully declined the interest.
September also brought a request from El Paso County Sheriff to aid in a search effort for a missing man. Two teams were able to deploy to assist with the search effort. Teams secured the search perimeter, scouted remote roads and transported dog search teams into the back country. We also offered to carry equipment and personnel closer to search area to increase time on scene.
Although the search was unsuccessful, we were proud to lend a hand in another organization’s efforts to save a life. We learned more from the effort, and also faced one of the realities of SnR work; that two of the three possible outcomes are not favorable. For the first time from direct involvement, our members had to deal with those unfavorable outcomes. We had grown professionally, and were growing emotionally.
Also in September, we were invited to Alpine Search and Rescue’s Fair. This event showcased the services that were used and available to the people Alpine served; the public. We shared a stage with one of the most honored and professional Search and Rescue groups in the nation.
On theme with many of the events of the year, we received a call from a family who was convinced their loved ones were lost or stranded while hunting in north central Colorado. Although not officially activating us, the sheriff briefed us on road conditions and closures in the region, agreeing on a plan for deployment.
As it turned out, the family was right but unknown to anyone at the time, the couple had already started walking out from their hunting camp and reached near the end of their physical and emotional resources. They had reportedly already made good-bye recordings since they felt their situation was desperate. Fortuitously, our team found the pair within an hour of reaching the hunting area, returning them to town for phone calls and medical assessment.
The fall brought with it continued cost from the many hours of work required to get the org. to that point by many people. I chose to step down from my PR and VP roles, becoming a BOD member at large to reduce my stress. Jeff Schafer assumed the additional role of VP. I agreed to fill outreach roles when needed and writing for the org.
Soon after, a new BOD member was added, Kristal Florquist, who filled the role of secretary.
The multi-agency deployments of the year started efforts to provide our members with ICS 300 training. This was not an on-line course and demanded in person two day instruction. At the end of 2018, those classes started. We encouraged all of our members to attend, scheduling several classes.
The year also ended with over 200 combined recovery and SnR missions. Even our most seasoned and dedicated members were becoming exhausted. The accolades we had received helped a great deal, but members had to start going on self imposed stand-down to keep from wearing out. Some of the most active were asked to stand down by management, to keep from losing them completely.
The year of 2018 was an exhausting one that raised the profile of the organization substantially and pushed the limits and professionalism of the members, from the inside out. The price of the rapid growth and dramatic rise in the organization profile was about to exact its toll.