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BSAR Asks Surrounding Villages, Own Members For Help Responding To Nightly Alcohol Emergencies

Katie Basile

It’s the second winter since Bethel opened a liquor store, and the demand on Bethel Search and Rescue to help people who’ve been drinking has more than doubled since last year. It's been a challenge for the all-volunteer organization to keep up with demand. They are looking for more members and hoping that some of the surrounding villages will help.

Bethel Search and Rescue's mission is to find people and bring them home. Forty years ago, when the organization formed, that meant finding people who were lost in the days before cell phones and GPS. As technology changed so did search methods, but in the last two years another factor has altered what the organization does almost entirely: alcohol.

“We get nightly calls, every night for people who are intoxicated," said Bethel Search and Rescue President Mike Riley. "They come to Bethel, they consume alcohol, and they try to return back home.”

Often they don't make it, and Search and Rescue gets called.

“I don’t know if it’s called a rescue anymore," Riley said.

“I think it would be called more of an emergency response," said Perry Barr, a long-serving Bethel Search and Rescue member. “Because lives could be lost, and especially with the colder temperatures we have to respond.”

The emergencies involving intoxicated people are increasing. Bethel opened its first liquor store in 2016 following nearly four decades of banned sales. In prior years, searchers would respond to alcohol-related calls about once a month. Last winter, that jumped to about twice a week. This winter, Riley says, it’s almost every night.

“The calls are coming in from 11 p.m. and 2 a.m." Riley said. "We get up, get ready, and get out and do our rescue."

The same five men, including Riley, respond. Bethel Search and Rescue has about 80 active members who will go out on extended searches, like the ones the organization was created for, but the list of names for nightly calls you can count on one hand: five men with day jobs, families, and other responsibilities.

Responding to calls night after night is wearing down the Search and Rescue volunteers, and about 20 percent of the calls are for what the group labels “frequent fliers.”

“It’s really close by villages that they’re coming back and forth from, and we need more cooperation from,” Riley said.

The organization is appealing to these villages for help.  It doesn't have to be all that much.

“If they could put something together like a hasty two-man team," Riley said, "that’s all you really need.”

The increase in night searches is exhausting, even frustrating, but the work must go on. 

“Where do we draw that line? We can’t draw that line on our responses. If we get a call, we will respond,” Riley said.

Along with the request to neighboring villages, Bethel Search and Rescue is asking its own members to respond at night. Riley would like to create a rotating schedule, and member Perry Barr would like to see younger people signing up.

“Our current membership is getting long in the tooth, so to speak. They’re getting older," Barr said. "And we need some of the younger people in this community to step up and volunteer so we can train them, spend time with them; they can respond with us.”

Listen in tomorrow for part two of this story on how Bethel Search and Rescue is working to improve its relationship with the Bethel Police Department.  

Anna Rose MacArthur is the KYUK News Director. She has worked at KYUK since 2015 and previously worked at KNOM in Nome, Alaska.
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