Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue want to be rescued

SNOHOMISH — As the county tries to figure out what to do with $160 million in federal pandemic recovery money, a group of volunteers are pushing for a small fraction.

Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue leaders say they have been waiting for help for a long time. The organization, which has about 200 active volunteers, derives almost all of its modest funding from grants and donations.

Their equipment is worn out, said John McKeon, chairman of the organization’s philanthropy committee. John McKeon’s wife, Heidi, is president of search and rescue.

Rooftops are leaking at its headquarters near Old Machias Road, north of Snohomish. Heavy vehicles are a few decades old. Aging hovercraft used for water rescues – the oldest of their kind still in operation in the country – are due to retire.

Now they are asking for $940,000 from the US Federal Bailout Act. This includes $500,000 for a new parking garage and roofs of buildings that John McKeon calls “not terribly sexy, but extremely difficult to finance,” $150,000 for hovercraft replacement and $140,000 for a new winch helicopter for air rescue missions.

Two search and rescue vehicles are parked outside where they have no protection from the elements Wednesday, June 22, at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters in Snohomish. One of the organization’s fundraising goals is to get money to house these and other vehicles. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

This sum would multiply what SCVSAR brings in each year. Each year, the organization typically raises about $100,000, Heidi McKeon said.

Last month, dozens of local law enforcement officers were at the organization’s longtime headquarters, known as Taylor’s Landing, for helicopter training.

Search and rescue has the support of Sheriff Adam Fortney. In a letter to the county executive, he wrote that he hoped Search and Rescue would get funding so they can “continue their ever-growing and important work” as missions ramp up in the backwaters. Snohomish County Wood. A few local fire chiefs sent similar letters.

But it’s a hard sell.

“How do you associate a pandemic with our need for parking? asked John McKeon, who works as a financial planner.

Heidi McKeon looks at the ceiling of a storage shed that needs roof repairs Wednesday, June 22, at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters in Snohomish.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Heidi McKeon looks at the ceiling of a storage shed that needs roof repairs Wednesday, June 22, at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters in Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

According to federal guidelines, local governments can only use federal money in a few ways: support the COVID-19 response, replace lost government revenue, support immediate financial relief for businesses and households, and resolve systemic issues.

When it comes to capital projects, which make up most of the organization’s requests, the rules are even stricter, said Kelsey Nyland, spokesperson for the county’s Office of Recovery and Resilience. Where money is earmarked for physical property, it can only be used for COVID-19 relief efforts and affordable housing or shelter.

In multiple meetings, county officials said search and rescue had their hands tied, Nyland said in an email. However, it is possible that the needs can be met by other means, such as the transfer of available equipment from the county.

“Snohomish County will continue to work with SCVSAR to determine how we can support their important and lifesaving work,” Nyland wrote.

Recently, the county held its final five-event ‘recovery tour’ in Arlington to ask community members how they want to use the ‘unique opportunity’, as County Board Member Nate Nehring said. . The priority for participants was to increase mental health services and childcare options.

Heidi and John McKeon walk through a shed used to store vehicles Wednesday, June 22 at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters in Snohomish.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Heidi and John McKeon walk through a shed used to store vehicles Wednesday, June 22 at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters in Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

John McKeon argues that helping mental health is central to the group’s work. While searches for hikers stuck in poor conditions are the obvious focus, the organization conducts rural and urban searches for those with behavioral health issues or cognitive impairments.

“Rescuing people on the outside” is what the operation does, he said. “The outdoors can be urban. The outside may be out there in the desert. It can be bringing someone back to their family. It can be about recovering a body. … There are many applications for search and rescue.

And the pandemic has changed their work. Fewer volunteers were willing to go into the field due to the risk of exposure. Missions have increased. In the years leading up to the pandemic, the organization averaged about 310 assignments accepted per year. That number rose to 457 in 2020 as locked-down residents went outdoors, before dropping back to average last year. The number of assignments they had to decline more than doubled, from 39 in 2019 to 87 the following year.

Local law enforcement gathers around a helicopter for practice next to a shed that needs roof repairs Wednesday, June 22, at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters at Snohomish.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Local law enforcement gathers around a helicopter for practice next to a shed that needs roof repairs Wednesday, June 22, at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters at Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Volunteers completed nearly 8,000 mission hours in 2020, according to Search and Rescue. For reference, the response to the Highway 530 landslide near Oso was a mission totaling more than 8,400 volunteer hours. The mission command vehicle was parked at the McKeons’ for a month during the Oso landslide.

Last October, rescuers from several groups, including SCVSAR, marched through heavy snow to rescue two stranded hikers on Three Fingers Mountain. This mission lasted 20 hours.

The McKeons didn’t know search and rescue existed until 2008. Volunteers rescued their teenage son and two of his friends while they were trapped overnight in poor conditions on Three Fingers.

“Spending 20 hours with low-key professionals who gave up a Tuesday night and a Wednesday to pick up people they didn’t know,” John McKeon said, “leaves you an impression you’ll never forget.”

The community’s priorities for ARPA funds will be compiled into a report expected to be made public by the end of this month, Nyland said. A spending plan will then likely be submitted to the county council in August or September.

Rue Jake Goldstein: 425 339-3439; [email protected]; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.

Heidi McKeon exits a mobile headquarters vehicle inside a large garage intended to house search and rescue vehicles Wednesday, June 22, at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters in Snohomish.  (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

Heidi McKeon exits a mobile headquarters vehicle inside a large garage intended to house search and rescue vehicles Wednesday, June 22, at the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue Headquarters in Snohomish. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

how to help

Donations can be made either online or by mail. Or contributions can be made by selecting Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue and shopping through Amazon Smile at no additional cost.

Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue, 5506 Old Machias Rd, Snohomish, WA 98290

Contact SCVSAR for more information at [email protected]

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Brandon D. James