RIVERTON, Wyo. — The Wyoming Search and Rescue Council on Thursday approved a total of $163,856.73 in reimbursements to 12 Wyoming county sheriff’s departments for search and rescue operations in the past year.
Eighteen sheriff’s offices conducted 301 missions between April 2012 and March 2013, but only 12 applied for reimbursements. The 11-person council chose to cover the counties’ expenses for less than 50 operations during the meeting at the Riverton Holiday Inn.
The Wyoming Office of Homeland Security oversees the council and is responsible for administering requests. The council manages more than $700,000 in donated search and rescue funds.
The money comes mostly from donations offered whenever hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and other licenses are sold at sporting goods stores, sheriff’s offices and state agencies.
The Wyoming Legislature recently passed a bill that will now ask people to donate $2 instead of $1.
Thirty-five people died and 95 were injured on missions where search and rescue crews were called in during the past year.
The donations are vital to county commissions with shrinking budgets.
“These funds make a big difference in our world,” said Kent Connelly, a council member and Lincoln County commissioner.
State statute and the Wyoming attorney general’s office have outlined strict rules that county sheriffs must follow to apply for reimbursements. Receipts must be submitted a day after any mission and full explanations for the purpose of each operation are required.
There was one area where the attorney general’s office provided the council with a little wiggle room, said Guy Cameron, council member and director of the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security. The rules provide flexibility for when a search and rescue crew starts a mission with the intent of finding survivors but ends up finding dead bodies, he said.
If rescue crews are called to retrieve bodies, county coroners incur the costs. If rescue crews go out on a mission with the notion that there are survivors, sheriff’s offices are eligible for reimbursements.
A plane crash on Laramie Peak in October provided the council with a tough decision Thursday.
Albany County requested a $14,422.28 reimbursement for transporting a coroner in a helicopter to the site of the crash that left four Texas men dead.
Cameron and three other committee members were in favor of paying for the mission. The other members were opposed to footing the bill.
The rescue mission spanned four days. Rescue crews conducted searches on the first two days and were paid for fueling helicopters and feeding volunteers. On the third day, the U.S. Air Force spotted the plane and said there were no signs of life.
No one was officially pronounced dead, but the coroner was called to the scene. Since the crash was on top of one of Wyoming’s highest peaks, the coroner needed assistance in summiting the mountain. Search and rescue crews were called to the scene to assist the corner. One rescue unit in a helicopter lowered in the coroner when they arrived at the site of the crash. Then the coroner confirmed that all who were in the plane were dead.
“Until you have a body it can’t be assumed that someone is dead,” said Jeff Linn, a council member and search and rescue specialist in Sublette County.
The council’s rules gave it the ability to repay Albany County, Cameron said. But the council ruled that rescue crews knew that the victims were dead because of what the Air Force reported, Hofmeier said.
If the council changes the policy, “it will open up a whole new can of worms,” he said.
Hiking, horseback riding, hunting and snowmobiling were the leading causes for search and rescue calls in 2012-13. Wyoming residents were responsible for 242 missions.
To help lessen the burden on local governments and the rescue fund, Cameron recently secured a deal with the Wyoming Air National Guard to use UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters for missions at no cost to the state and counties until 2015. Teton and Sublette counties already lease helicopters to have on call for missions.