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.