SNOHOMISH — As the county tries to figure out what to do with $160 million in federal pandemic recovery money, one volunteer group is pushing hard for a small fraction.
Leaders from Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue argue they are long overdue for help. The organization, with about 200 active volunteers, gets just about all of its modest funding through grants and donations.
Their equipment is worn down, said John McKeon, chair of the organization’s philanthropy committee. John McKeon’s wife, Heidi, is search and rescue’s president.
Roofs leak at its headquarters off Old Machias Road, north of Snohomish. Heavy-duty vehicles are a couple decades old. Aging hovercrafts used for water rescues — the oldest of their kind still operating in the country — are due for retirement.
Now they’re asking for $940,000 from the federal American Rescue Plan Act. That includes $500,000 for new covered parking and building roofs that John McKeon calls “not terribly sexy, but extremely hard to fund,” $150,000 for hovercraft replacement and $140,000 for a new helicopter hoist for air rescue missions.
That sum would multiply what SCVSAR brings in each year. On any given year, the organization usually raises about $100,000, said Heidi McKeon.
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-increasing and important work” as missions rise in the backwoods of Snohomish County. A few local fire chiefs sent similar letters.
But it’s a hard sell.
“How do you relate a pandemic to our need for a parking garage?” asked John McKeon, who works as a financial planner.
Under federal guidelines, local governments can only use the federal cash in a few ways: supporting the COVID-19 response, replacing lost government revenue, supporting immediate financial help for both businesses and households, and addressing systemic issues.
When it comes to capital projects, which make up most of the organization’s asks, rules are even more stringent, said Kelsey Nyland, a spokesperson for the county’s Office of Recovery and Resilience. When the money is for physical property, it can only be used for COVID-19 efforts and affordable housing units or shelter.
In multiple meetings, county officials have told search and rescue their hands are tied, Nyland said in an email. However, it’s possible the needs could be addressed in other ways, such as the transfer of available county equipment.
“Snohomish County will continue to work with SCVSAR to determine how we may support their important, lifesaving work,” Nyland wrote.
Recently, the county hosted its final of five “recovery roadshow” events in Arlington to ask community members how they want to use the “once in a lifetime opportunity,” as county Councilmember Nate Nehring put it. Top of mind for attendees were increasing mental health services and child care options.
John McKeon argues mental health aid is central to the group’s work. While searches for hikers stuck in poor conditions are the obvious focus, the organization leads rural and urban searches for those suffering from behavioral health disorders or cognitive disabilities.
“Rescuing people outdoors” is what the operation does, he said. “Outdoors can be urban. Outdoors can be out there in the wilderness. It can be bringing back somebody to their family. It can be recovering a body. … There’s a lot of application for search and rescue.”
And the pandemic did alter their work. Fewer volunteers were willing to go out in the field for risk of exposure. Missions rose. In the years before the pandemic, the organization averaged around 310 accepted missions per year. That jumped to 457 in 2020, as cooped up residents took to the outdoors, before dropping back down to the average last year. The number of missions they had to decline more than doubled, from 39 in 2019 to 87 the next year.
Volunteers logged nearly 8,000 hours on missions in 2020, according to search and rescue. For reference, the response to the Highway 530 landslide near Oso was one mission totaling over 8,400 volunteer hours. The command vehicle for the mission was parked at the McKeons’ house for a month during the Oso slide.
Last October, rescuers from several groups, including SCVSAR, hiked through heavy snow to save two hikers stranded on Three Fingers Mountain. That mission lasted 20 hours.
The McKeons didn’t know search and rescue existed before 2008. Volunteers rescued their teenage son and two of his friends as they were trapped overnight in poor conditions on Three Fingers.
“To spend 20 hours with the quiet professionals that gave up a Tuesday night and a Wednesday to go look for people that they didn’t know,” John McKeon said, “that leaves an impression with you that you never forget.”
The community’s priorities for the ARPA funds will be gathered in a report expected to be publicly released by the end of this month, Nyland said. A spending plan will then likely be submitted to the county council in August or September.
Jake Goldstein-Street: 425-339-3439; email@example.com; Twitter: @GoldsteinStreet.
How to help
Donations can be made either online or through 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 & Rescue, 5506 Old Machias Rd, Snohomish, WA 98290
Contact SCVSAR to learn more at firstname.lastname@example.org
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