Search and rescue reactivated

Missoula County Search and Rescue is officially back on the job this month after spending last fall and much of the winter on inactive status. Sheriff Carl Ibsen says he moved "immediately" to reactivate the local volunteer squad upon taking office in early January, recognizing a need to mobilize all of the county's resources as soon as possible.

"We're in that season, and we have been for a while," Ibsen says. "Winter is almost always reasonably busy with lost snowmobilers and lost skiers and you name it, and it just didn't seem to make sense not to avail ourselves of the full resources that were there."

Former Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin declared the Missoula-based unit inactive last July, following a series of internal spats he repeatedly refused to elaborate on. The Independent reported in early November that McMeekin had gone so far as to change the locks on the unit's county-owned equipment bay, despite the fact that much of the equipment was donated to and owned by the squad.

McMeekin's actions, in part, prompted members in the Seeley Lake area to split from the group in August and form their own independent organization, Seeley-Swan Rescue, which remained on active duty. He attempted to calm the situation with a memorandum of understanding last fall, but the memo only furthered complicated relations with local volunteers.

Now, Ibsen says, the county has reached agreements that are satisfactory to all.

"I'm told by my other coordinators that everything's running pretty good," Ibsen says. "Both units are obviously hoping they're not needed, but if they are they're ready to go."

A number of changes will persist as search and rescue moves on from McMeekin. The two organizations will remain separate entities under the supervision and command of different deputies. Ibsen appointed Sgt. Dave Ball, a county rescue coordinator from years ago, to act as a central county coordinator for the two units. Any necessary tweaks or changes to operations will be thoroughly discussed among all parties, Ibsen says.

"We as the administration will be taking our cues from not only our coordinators but from the memberships of the various units," he adds.

Missoula County Search and Rescue recently held its annual officer elections. Members voted for Ben Ehlers to replace Chris Froines as volunteer chief for 2011.

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