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AGLO 1977 No. 32 - July 25, 1977
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Slade Gorton | 1969-1980 | Attorney General of Washington

OFFICES AND OFFICERS ‑- COUNTY ‑- SHERIFF ‑- CONDUCT OF SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATIONS

Even though the statutes relating to duties of a county sheriff do not, themselves, expressly require him to conduct search and rescue operations he may well have a duty to do so either because of his involvement in the county emergency services organization or because a criminal investigation may be called for under the facts of a given case.

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                                                                    July 25, 1977

Honorable Henry R. Dunn
Prosecuting Attorney
312 South First Avenue West
Kelso, Washington 98626                                                                                                               Cite as:  AGLO 1977 No. 32

Dear Sir:

            By recent letter you have requested the opinion of this office on the following question:

            "What is the responsibility of a county sheriff to conduct Search and Rescue operations in the event of a downed aircraft, lost person, drowning victim, recovery of a dead body or similar misfortune?"

            We answer your question in the manner set forth in our analysis.

                                                                    ANALYSIS

            In posing the foregoing question you have correctly noted that RCW 36.28.010, which pertains to the duties of the county sheriff, makes no express mention of the conduct of search and rescue operations.  Likewise, we would agree with you that generally speaking, the subject falls more properly within the jurisdiction of the department of emergency services which all counties are authorized and directed to establish pursuant to RCW 38.52.070 ‑ together, in the specific case of downed aircraft, with that of the state aeronautics commission under chapter 14.04 RCW.1/

             [[Orig. Op. Page 2]]

            In some counties, however, it is our understanding that the county sheriff has additionally been designated as the director of the county department of emergency services.  Accord, AGO 63-64 No. 66 [[to R. A. Hensel, Prosecuting Attorney of Douglas County, on October 18, 1963]], copy enclosed, in which this office ruled that the two positions are not incompatible.2/   Thus, to that  [[Orig. Op. Page 3]] extent the answer to your question could well depend, in part, upon whether Cowlitz county has designated its county sheriff as the director of its department of emergency services or has otherwise so structured its program for emergency services as to involve the sheriff to some extent.  See, RCW 38.52.100 ‑ 38.52.110.

            In addition, it seems to us that there may be a further factor involved which, in a given case, could bear upon the answer to your question.  Although a county sheriff is not specifically required to conduct search and rescue operations,per se, he is, of course, the chief law enforcement officer of his county and, in that capacity, is required to investigate crimes occurring, or alleged to have occurred, in the county which he serves.  RCW 36.28.010.  And, obviously, the alleged existence of a "lost" hunter or a dead body could well constitute an indication of possible criminal activity.  Thus, at least in such a case the sheriff would clearly have a duty to participate in any so-called "search and rescue" operation to the extent necessary to perform his responsibilities as sheriff in the area of criminal law enforcement.  Moreover, it is even conceivable that this could also be true in connection with search and rescue operations related to a downed aircraft.

            What all of this means, however, is that the ultimate answer to the question which you have here asked will be dependent upon all of the facts of each particular case.  Even though the statutes relating to duties of a county sheriff do not, themselves, expressly require him to conduct search and rescue operations he may well have a duty to do so either because of his involvement in the county emergency services organization or because a criminal investigation may be called for under the facts of a given case.

            It is hoped that the foregoing will be of some assistance to you.

Very truly yours,

SLADE GORTON
Attorney General


PHILIP H. AUSTIN
Deputy Attorney General

                                                         ***   FOOTNOTES   ***

1/Where downed civilian aircraft have been involved, the aeronautics commission throughout the years has taken the primary responsibility for organizing and conducting air searches.  It has found such authority by reading together RCW 14.04.010, the policy section, declaring the purposes of the chapter to include the protection and promotion of safety in aeronautics and RCW 14.04.233 which provides that pilot registration fees shall be used in part for the "search and rescue of lost and downed aircraft and airmen under the direction and supervision of the director of aeronautics."  See, also, RCW 38.52.030(6) which provides:

            "(6) The director shall appoint a state coordinator of search and rescue operations, who shall coordinate those state resources, services and facilities (other than those for which the state director of aeronautics is directly responsible) requested by political subdivisions in support of search and rescue operations, and who shall on request maintain liaison with and coordinate the resources, services, and facilities of political subdivisions when more than one political subdivision is engaged in joint search and rescue operations."

2/Although the term "civil defense" was then used to describe the subject covered by RCW 38.52.010, et seq., the legislature has since replaced that term with the broader, and more descriptive, term "emergency services."  See, chapter 171, Laws of 1974, 1st Ex. Sess.

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