Ga. search and rescue team on hold as bureaucracy stalls re-organization

Under state law a private rescue team cannot operate unless it's licensed by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency


Kevin C. Hall
The Moultrie Observer, Ga.

MOULTRIE, Ga. — A conflict between the Colquitt County government and the county Search and Rescue Team appeared headed for a resolution two weeks ago, but state bureaucracy has stepped in to complicate matters.

The issue came to the county Board of Commissioners' attention Sept. 23, although county staff had apparently been dealing with it behind the scenes for weeks or months.

The Colquitt County Search and Rescue Team is a private organization, a team of about 18 volunteers organized under the Civil Defense program possibly in the 1970s, according to members who spoke to the commissioners at a later meeting. As the Civil Defense program morphed into federal, state and county emergency management agencies, the rescue team continued doing what it was intended to do: Find missing people.

County Emergency Management Director Justin Cox told commissioners Sept. 23 that the team operated under the county EMA under his predecessor, who left the role last year. It was apparently an informal arrangement. Team members are not county employees, and the team doesn't have a legal structure like a corporation that could contract with the county for their services.

"On paper they don't exist," Cox said. "They're a group of people who meet twice a month. ... If they work for the EMA, they should be under our workman's comp insurance and our vehicle insurance."

A line item in the county EMA's budget allocates $1,700 in county money for the rescue team. It doesn't specify what that money is used for.

The Search and Rescue Team owns two vehicles, a Chevy Suburban and a bus it uses as a mobile command center. Cox learned that the vehicles are covered by the county's insurance, even though the county didn't buy them.

And that's a problem. As Cox and County Administrator Chas Cannon explained, if the county allows private citizens to drive vehicles insured by the county and they have an accident — even if the rescue team member isn't at fault — the county could be subject to a lawsuit.

Cox confiscated the keys and tags to the rescue team's vehicles, shutting them down as an independent organization. Individuals from the team can and do still assist in finding missing people.

County officials hoped the rescue team would create a legal organization — a corporation, a limited liability corporation, or whatever structure the team thought was appropriate — then present a contract for service for the commissioners to consider. Approval of such a contract would give the team legal standing similar to the volunteer fire departments.

"It's not a rescue team issue. It's a paperwork issue," Cannon said.

Two weeks after commissioners were briefed on the conflict, rescue team leader Murray Barfield addressed the commission's Oct. 5 meeting. He described rescues the team members have been involved in, including pulling a horse from a swimming pool.

"My team gets out in the ice and the cold and tromps through the woods in knee-deep water to find missing children," he said.

Barfield said the team had been in contact with an attorney but wasn't getting anywhere in forming an LLC.

That seemed to surprise county attorney Lester Castellow, who said the process is simple to file and takes about two weeks for the Georgia Secretary of State's Office to respond. After some discussion, Castellow volunteered to file the paperwork to establish the rescue team as a nonprofit corporation.

The timing wouldn't be quick enough for the rescue team to fulfill its usual role at Sunbelt Expo, but otherwise the plan seemed to offer a quick resolution to the problem.

Sheriff Rod Howell agreed the team could operate under the sheriff's office.

Fast forward to the commission's Oct. 19 meeting, where Castellow said the articles of incorporation had been filed as promised, but a bureaucratic snafu has everything on hold.

The Colquitt County Search and Rescue Team is one of only five private rescue teams in the state, and that puts them in a special category. Castellow said under state law a private rescue team cannot operate unless it's licensed by the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. Most rescue teams in the state operate as part of a government agency — city fire department, county sheriff's office, etc. — and thereby follow different rules. If the local team has a contract to operate for the county, does that mean it has to follow the rules for a private team or those for a government team?

"They have been trying to get with GEMA to see whether they need a license," Castellow said.

That's a big deal because GEMA no longer has rules for how to issue a license to a private rescue team. Previous rules were repealed more than a year ago, Castellow said, and new ones have not been passed.

Castellow said he had reached out to GEMA's legal department by phone and email but hadn't received a response as of the Oct. 19 meeting.

Many rescue team members have individual certifications — many have "day jobs" as firefighters or EMTs — but until the requirements for the team's overall licensing are resolved, its status remains in limbo.

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