Bethel Search and Rescue needs help. On a nearly nightly basis this winter, the all-volunteer group has been called to assist people who are intoxicated and have lost their way on the surrounding trails. The group says that about 70 percent of their calls come from the Bethel Police Department. Now Bethel Search and Rescue wants BPD to match its resources with the organization's services.
Bethel Police call Search and Rescue when people are missing, or when travelers need help outside the city's jurisdiction.
“Oftentimes we don’t have the equipment,” Bethel Police Chief Burke Waldron said. “We don’t have the number of personnel that it takes to do an organized search, and we don’t have the expertise that they do.”
But since winter has begun, Bethel Search and Rescue says that it has been called almost nightly. It is so extreme that the volunteers believe that their organization’s name no longer describes what it does.
“I think it’s more of an emergency response than an actual search and rescue,” said Perry Barr, a long-serving Bethel Search and Rescue member.
As the group’s duties have changed, it sees its relationship with Bethel Police changing as well.
This situation came to a head in late November when police called Search and Rescue to help find Robert Nick. The searchers found Nick’s body 10 days later, mere hours after listening to a recording of the phone calls Nick had made to police the night he went missing. Bethel Search and Rescue had requested the audio days earlier.
Something else happened when they listened to the recording. The searchers discovered that they’d been given incomplete and in some cases, they say, false information. And they heard the dispatcher give advice that the searchers disagreed with, like telling Nick not to turn on a light and not to strike a fire.
But it's a guiding principle of Bethel Search and Rescue to never cast blame.
“That’s not our mission as an organization,” Barr said. “Our organization is saving lives. Our mission is to find and recover.”
As another guiding principle, Bethel Search and Rescue always works to improve, and to do that the group has a list of requests for the Bethel Police Department. First, Search and Rescue wants to conference call into the dispatches that the Bethel Police Department asks Search and Rescue to assist with. It's a simple idea in theory, but not so simple in practice.
“And the reason for that is information is shared that is protected by federal law,” Chief Waldron said.
Searchers would need clearance from the FBI Criminal Justice Information Services Division. This lack of clearance is the same obstacle blocking another Search and Rescue request: immediate and full access to all the information related to a case that they’re assisting with, like phone audio.
“There’s information on those phone conversations that is protected information that they are not qualified to have access to,” Chief Waldron explained," And that information has to be redacted out of those calls, and that takes time.”
One request that Chief Waldron says would be easy to meet is working with Search and Rescue to develop questions and guidelines for dispatch to use during missing persons calls.
“I’d be open to discuss that with them. Yes, most definitely,” Chief Waldron said.
Another simpler request is for Bethel Search and Rescue to use Police Department snowmachines and four-wheelers during searches.
“I will need control of who uses them when,” Chief Waldron said. “And there would have to be some kind of written agreement in case things were damaged and things of that sort, but I’d certainly be willing to discuss that with Bethel Search and Rescue.”
Chief Waldron is also open to sending officers with searchers on calls involving a person who might be armed or violent, and he says that he’s happy to attend Search and Rescue meetings to discuss these requests in person. He said that he has attended two such meetings since he took his job this summer.
Bethel Search and Rescue’s final request is money. President Mike Riley says that he has a meeting with the City Manager next week to begin that discussion.