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Analyzing the SAR Situation

It was almost 125 years ago that Oscar Wilde wrote of the cynical man who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”


October 22, 2013
By Paul Dixon

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It was almost 125 years ago that Oscar Wilde wrote of the cynical man who “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” That was long before the Wright Brothers flew at Kittyhawk and long before Igor Sikorsky invested the helicopter, but these words are most accurate in describing the mentality of those who profess to govern us. Our federal search and rescue (SAR) scene has seen the elimination of Coast Guard bases such as Kitsilano in Vancouver as only one of a number of decisions driven by the government’s priorities. There is no question that our military and coast guard SAR experts provide an incredibly high level of service, especially when you consider the value-for money proposition, but that’s only half the story.

Outside of the federal area of responsibility, search and rescue in Canada is the responsibility of the local government via the local police agency. Outside of urban settings, the police are ill-equipped to conduct ground searches in wilderness areas or mount technical rescue operations. In B.C., there are some 80 community-based SAR teams of volunteers. In fact, you may not be aware that many functions in community-level emergency management are performed by volunteers. In B.C., there are approximately 13,000 volunteers actively involved in SAR, road rescue, emergency management, emergency communications (amateur radio) and PEP Air (CASARA). They do everything from leading air and ground searches, rescues and helping the victims of serious car accidents to setting up networks of volunteer teams and co-ordinating services for victims of natural disasters.

 The term “underground economy” gained popularity a few years ago to describe those who survive in a cash-only universe in an attempt to fly under the taxman’s radar. Far from being off the radar, volunteers are wholly visible and have a significantly positive impact on their communities through their selfless contribution of their talent and time. Tim Jones, a longtime fixture in the B.C. SAR scene, kicked a hornet’s nest when he spoke out recently about the need for a new funding model for community-based SAR. The workload has been increasing in recent years and the incidents have become more complex, requiring a highly skilled force of SAR responders. Often, circumstances require large responses involving multiple teams from across a region.

The recent August long weekend created a boom for local SAR teams. Chilliwack SAR had four unrelated Helicopter External Transport System (HETS) rescues over the weekend; North Shore SAR had two separate helicopter extractions from the Howe Sound Trail; and Squamish SAR was tasked with recovering the body of a hiker who fell 1,000 feet to her death from the Stawamus Chief, the 2,300-foot granite monolith that towers over Squamish. This is one weekend, all within 175 kilometres of Vancouver. Working with those teams were the highly skilled pilots from Blackcomb, Talon and Valley Helicopters, who are there time and time again.

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Jones proposes significant changes in the way that ground SAR is funded to meet the growing demand for service. He sees three core areas to be addressed at a minimum: standby pay for designated SAR members; reserve helicopters specifically for SAR missions at peak times; and the creation of a permanent provincewide communications system dedicated to search and rescue. British Columbia does provide a level of funding for SAR to cover training and designated operational expenses, including the use of helicopters. The reality is that much of the funding for volunteer SAR teams comes largely through donations and the fundraising efforts of team members. While helicopter operators are paid for certain aspects of SAR, they also donate many hours of flying time to the cause for operations.

The fact is, we often overlook the true cost of volunteering. It’s not just the actual time spent on deployment or on training exercises, which can run well into the hundreds of hours annually for each SAR member. It’s the impact on the day-to-day world of the volunteer who answers a pager. Pagers have no appreciation for time, and may go off in the middle of a birthday party, during Christmas dinner or in the middle of the workday. There are the employers who underwrite their employees’ community service by allowing them to leave and the self-employed volunteers who shut down their business for as long as it takes. There is a huge cost to being a volunteer and it is carried across the entire community. It’s a situation where too many take the value for granted without any consideration of the price.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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