Alaska City’s Search and Rescue Crew Sees Spike in Alcohol-Related Calls

February 8, 2017

Members of Bethel’s volunteer search and rescue organization are dealing with a spike in alcohol-related calls this winter, which is putting a strain on the group’s budget.

The increase in calls comes during the southwest Alaska town’s first winter of legalized alcohol sales in more than 40 years, KYUK-AM reported.

Search and Rescue President Mike Riley said the current call rate is unsustainable for the group’s donation-funded budget.

“It’s OK for now,” Riley said, “but if we keep this up, and we keep going out, and we’re out of our own pocket, we’ll be hurting for funding.”

Since November, Bethel Search and Rescue has been responding to about two calls each week, up from about only a few calls each month in previous winters. The calls typically come between midnight and 6 a.m. and involve rescues in frigid temperatures, leaving some search and rescue members feeling drained and worn out.

Only about 10 of the organization’s 100 volunteers respond regularly to calls. At least one member has talked about quitting and others are taking indefinite breaks.

John Wassilie has volunteered for Bethel Search and Rescue for more than 30 years. He said intoxicated people can make rescue operations difficult when they become verbally aggressive or even violent.

“They don’t want to listen to you,” Wassilie said. “They don’t want to reason with you, and they want to try to get home.”

Bethel legalized alcohol sales and opened its first liquor store last spring.

Riley is urging residents to drink responsibly after the death of Charles Williams Jr., whose body was found on the Kuskokwim River by the volunteer group on Jan. 26.

A family member had reported Williams missing after he left for Akiak on an all-terrain vehicle and didn’t make it back to Bethel. He had apparently frozen to death and alcohol is believed to have been a factor in his death.

“We ask if you come to Bethel to buy booze, bring it home first, and then start consuming it there for your own safety and the safety of others,” Riley said.

Despite safety and budget concerns, Riley said the group is motivated to continue its search and rescue efforts.

“We’re going to keep on going for the people’s sake out there, for their families’ sake,” he said. “The biggest part of it is keeping everyone safe and bringing them home.”

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