New Hampshire Fish & Game officials say a spike in search and rescue missions is putting a strain on the department’s already limited resources.
The department typically makes between 175 to 180 rescues a year, most involving hikers. Fish & Game says it's already close to reaching that figure, with the two busiest rescue months yet to come.
Speaking to NHPR’s Morning Edition, Colonel Kevin Jordan says this comes at a time when the department is down six positions, with another two set to retire.
“When you’ve got 32 guys in the field, the entire state, covering all the calls and all the things that we do, you could have one rescue where you need better than half those people. So if you get two rescues happening back to back, you could be in trouble.”
Jordan says the state’s hike safe program has helped offset some of the department’s budget woes.
The department sold more than 4,000 cards last year, generating in excess of $100,000 in revenue.
The hike safe program launched in 2015. The cards exempt holders from having to cover the cost of rescues.
You can read the full interview below:
Why are we seeing more rescues this year?
I don’t know that I have the answer to that, other than it was a…my experience from doing this for many, many years is when we have these higher snow years or more extreme winters like we had this past winter, I think it’s easier for people to get themselves into trouble. For example, the last three or four rescues here recently that have made the news have been the result of spring down here at the trailhead, and then they get above 4,000 feet and they find it’s still in mid-winter conditions, which is a battle we have every early spring. Above 4,000 feet, things change a lot slower than they do down here. So they get up there and they don’t have snowshoes, they don’t have the proper ice equipment and they end up getting themselves physically injured or they get overcome by the weather conditions because they don’t have the proper gear or enough gear to stay warm, so that has generated the last four that I can think of in the last two weeks have been just because of that.
Are we seeing more novice hikers heading out these days?
I think we are. I think more people are coming up. I think hiking has gained in popularity, at least it seems to for us. We’re seeing an increase every year in the numbers. We’re averaging 175 to 180 rescues a year, or total missions. Those are searches and rescues, but we have years where that spikes and this year is certainly going to be one of those. We’re on track for that. We had more drownings this year as a result of a couple really tragic events. The Lake Winnipesaukee event on fishing derby weekend when we had five go through the ice due to poor ice conditions on that particular week. We just had a perfect storm really for some increased incidents, but we’re getting more people that are doing it.
Do you have the staffing to handle the volume?
I don’t, that’s the problem. What’s quickly approaching is the fact that the demands are ever climbing and our staff numbers are declining. And they’re declining for a couple of reasons. I think it’s getting more and more difficult to hire people that are qualified and willing to do it and then we fight the never-ending battle of budgets. The funding isn’t there, so you can’t replace the people that you’re losing. We’re down currently six positions, and we’re about to lose two more due to retirement and that’s critical. When you’ve got 32 guys in the field, the entire state, covering all the calls and all the things that we do, you could have one rescue where you need better than half those people. So if you get two rescues happening back to back, you could be in trouble. It’s a concern of mine and it’s a growing concern.
How has the Hike Safe program impacted your work?
Well, a couple of things. First, it’s been far more successful than anyone imagined it would be. Last year, as sold more than 4,000 cards and we raised in excess of $100,000, which helped address the deficit in the search and rescue account. It didn’t take care of it. It didn’t resolve it, and we never felt that it would because it’s a huge deficit every year. The funding source for search and rescue is not adequate for the expenses that come in, and so we normally fall short a couple hundred thousand dollars each year. This helped us tremendously. The other unknown factor and I don’t know a way to measure it is how many do we prevent because of Hike Safe. The program is out there, the card is named the same as the safety program, the 10 essentials for hiking, and all of the public relations campaign that we’ve mounted at AMC who’s been a cooperative partner. And some of these other voluntary groups at the trailheads to post the signs to make sure people get the message on how to be properly prepared to go into the White Mountains. We know that has made a difference, I’m convinced of it because the message is getting out like it never has before, but there’s no way to measure that. I can tell you this: we have rescued very few people who have Hike Safe cards, which I thought was interesting. In 2015, we had five rescues where people carried a Hike Safe card. So the people who were buying those cards were not really the people we were going after to rescue.
What should hikers be doing to prepare before they head out?
You’ve got to do a little research, take a little bit of time and not take it as a casual walk in the park because it just isn’t. If you’re going to above tree line in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, you have got to be prepared for mid-winter conditions and you’ve got to prepared almost year-round for that. You’ve got to have layers of clothing, you’ve got to have plenty of water, you’ve got to have a little bit of food to sustain you, some energy bars. You’ve got to have flashlights and headlamps. A number of people hike without any kind of light source whatsoever and a cellphone just isn’t adequate, it’s not going to last. People have spent some terrifying nights on the trails in our back country without lights and it’s just crazy with all the different flashlights available on the market today. Rain gear, warm clothing, a map, and a compass. The other thing that’s consistent with people who get in trouble are people hiking alone or a party that’s separated. You’ve got to stay together as a group. If two people are lost, the success rate for bringing those two people safely out healthy is much greater than it is for a single person. You’ve got someone there to help you if you get injured or get yourself into trouble. People continually hike alone, as we just saw with this gentleman up in the wilderness last week. If he’d had another person with him, it might have made a big difference for him. He’s very lucky to be alive.