Locked out 

Sheriff puts Missoula search and rescue on hold

Retiring Sheriff Mike McMeekin and Missoula County Sheriff's Search and Rescue (SAR) are stuck in an old-fashioned standoff. The local volunteer organization and its administrative supervisor are at odds over a recent memorandum of understanding that seeks to not only recognize the unit as a county affiliate but also establish the county sheriff's complete operational control over search and rescue. SAR Volunteer Chief Chris Froines says there's been no such memo—nor any need for one—in the unit's entire 50 years of service as a local nonprofit.

SAR has refused to sign the document in hopes that Carl Ibsen, the new sheriff elected Tuesday, will be able to resolve the issue in another manner.

"Our guys are really disheartened by the actions the sheriff's taken," Froines says. "People put in hundreds of hours a year volunteering, and then to have the real lack of appreciation the administration has shown is really disappointing. My concern is that, because the people we have who volunteer with us are all active people, with a long period of inactivity in search and rescue, people have a tendency to find something else to do."

McMeekin told the Independent last week that he's restricted access to the SAR storage bay to paid sheriff's department staff only pending a "thorough inventory" of all equipment. Froines confirms the lockout, but denies McMeekin's claim that volunteers are still able to access their meeting room. He adds that some of the equipment in lockdown belongs to SAR, not the county. Both declined to elaborate on the details behind the scuffle for control.

click to enlarge A recent memo outlining operational control of Missoula County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue has emergency volunteers facing off against outgoing Sheriff Mike McMeekin, and holding its breath that a new administration will resolve old issues. - PHOTO BY CHAD HARDER
  • Photo by Chad Harder
  • A recent memo outlining operational control of Missoula County Sheriff’s Search and Rescue has emergency volunteers facing off against outgoing Sheriff Mike McMeekin, and holding its breath that a new administration will resolve old issues.

"This is an internal matter between some officers of the Missoula unit and the County," McMeekin wrote in an e-mail to the Independent. "We have one very active and qualified search & rescue unit in the county and arrangements have been made to supplement that with additional coverage if necessary. I am confident that we can meet any SAR needs that come along in a timely fashion."

McMeekin has refused to activate volunteers with Missoula's search and rescue unit since they successfully located a lost canoeist on the Bitterroot River on July 8. The sheriff has instead shifted search and rescue operations to the newly established Seeley-Swan Search and Rescue unit 50 miles northeast of Missoula. McMeekin says the Missoula unit is currently "inactive" and has canceled meetings and training until "a variety of organizational and command issues are resolved." Froines denies these claims, saying the unit merely postponed its November meeting in light of the midterm elections.

Froines says the dispute between SAR and McMeekin began in July, shortly after McMeekin took control of the search for backcountry skier Chris Spurgeon on Lolo Peak. Spurgeon's body was found after two days by a group of citizens leading their own search of the mountain, and the incident raised questions among local outdoor enthusiasts and search and rescue volunteers about McMeekin's tendency to take charge in SAR field missions. (For more on this story, see "A call for help," Aug. 26, 2010.)

"After that is when things have really changed, to where the sheriff has taken a real hands-on approach with us," Froines says. "It doesn't work very well."

Adding to SAR's troubles, 11 members of the organization's Seeley-based squad resigned in late summer. Missoula County Commissioner Michele Landquist says she believes the split occurred "because of disagreements over what the high priorities should be" and over "personal philosophies." Landquist and her fellow commissioners approved an early August request from those former volunteers for recognition as a second, independent search and rescue unit based in Seeley. The new unit conducted its first mission in the Ninemile area on Aug. 25 and officially ratified its bylaws with the sheriff's department on Oct. 4.

"They just decided to go out on their own and form a new unit up here independent of [the Missoula] unit," says Senior Deputy Bob Parcell, one of the sheriff's department's search and rescue coordinators. "They're still under the sheriff's department, still at the behest of all the policies and so on of the sheriff. It's basically the same as it was except administratively they're not beholden to the unit down there."

Landquist also feels the internal conflicts between the Missoula and Seeley units is the result of inadequate dispersal of equipment and of funds from an $80,000-a-year mill levy passed in 2006 to cover training and operating costs. Whatever the reasons, she says the Seeley unit has proven cooperative in signing its own memorandum; she wishes she could say as much for SAR.

With the county's sole search and rescue unit stationed in a relatively remote area, hunting season and cold weather could make the situation worse.

"As county commissioners, we don't think it's appropriate to go into hunting season and the winter season and wait to make this the new sheriff's problem," Landquist says.

Froines maintains SAR has worked well with the sheriff's department since the unit was established in 1959. There's already a statute establishing the sheriff's supervisory role within search and rescue, and he sees no need for a memo undermining the autonomy the nonprofit has when it's not in the field.

He's not the only one hoping a new administration will bring an end to the spat.

"As soon as this is all resolved, they'll be back up and running," Parcell says of SAR. "They've got some great people down there, great experience, good equipment. It's just a matter of getting over this hump...We should be back to normal in a fairly short time."

Parcell's best guess as to when is January—when the new sheriff has fully transitioned into office.

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