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Saluting B.C.’s SAR Angels

January 15, 2014  By Paul Dixon

Search and rescue (SAR) in Canada is a responsibility shared across all three levels of government.

Search and rescue (SAR) in Canada is a responsibility shared across all three levels of government. The Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) is responsible for all incidents involving aircraft, the Canadian Coast Guard is responsible for marine incidents in areas of federal responsibility and Parks Canada is responsible for incidents in federal parks. The provincial and territorial governments are responsible for SAR in the rest of the country, generally under the auspices of the police force having jurisdiction: RCMP, provincial or municipal force. SAR conducted under provincial mandate is a volunteer endeavour.

SAR training  
SAR training starts with a run-through of hand signals to make sure everyone is on the same page; Talon pilot Derek Riendeau (black jacket) leads the group. (Photos by Paul Dixon)


For 2011, the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association reports that of the 1,933 SAR missions conducted in Canada, 1,308 were in B.C., two-thirds of the national total, a statistic that repeats year after year. Why does B.C. have such a disproportionate number of SAR missions compared to the rest of the country? The reasons are as varied as the number of incidents each year, but it boils down to a combination of the rugged terrain across the entire province, the attraction of outdoor activities year-round within easy reach of urban areas, a huge influx of adventure-minded tourists and what David Letterman delicately describes as “stupid human tricks.”

In B.C. today there are approximately 4,700 volunteers that make up the 80 volunteer community-based SAR teams that provide coverage across the province. The fact these people are unpaid volunteers makes their level of expertise all the more remarkable and is testament to their dedication. Over the past 20 years, call volumes in the province have risen from approximately 400 in 1991 to 900 in 2002 and 1,308 a decade later. Searches and rescues have become increasingly complex and technical, requiring a high degree of expertise on the part of volunteers. Given B.C.’s difficult terrain, the use of helicopters to transport search teams members into remote areas and to remove vicitms by means of long-line rescue (Helicopter External Transport System or HETS) is becoming widespread.


B.C.’s SAR commnity had its genesis in the outdoor movement of the 1950s and ’60s. Teams formed on an ad hoc basis, training was self-initiated and equipment was limited to what was at hand. Today, SAR is under the direction of Emergency Management BC, part of the Ministry of Justice. Teams have become highly skilled to meet the challenges presented by geography, with formal training in a wide variety of disciplines including advanced first aid, mountain rescue, swiftwater rescue, and increasingly, working with helicopters.

A large percentage of B.C.’s SAR missions take place on Vancouver Island or in a crescent around metro Vancouver that extends from Pemberton, 160 kilometres to the north out through the Fraser Valley for another 160 km to the east. The area that North Shore Rescue calls home is a microcosm of the B.C. SAR environment. The mountains that tower over the communities of West Vancouver and North Vancouver are but a short drive from downtown Vancouver. Home to three ski resorts, Cypress (setting of the 2010 Olympics’ freestyle skiing and snowboarding events), Grouse Mountain and Seymour. The mountains that draw skiers and boarders in winter also include major provincial and regional parks that stretch back through the mountains, presenting hundreds of kilometres of trails for hikers and mountain bikers. The myriad streams that are fed by the deep winter snows, become swift-flowing rivers in their short but tempestuous runs to the sea, drawing whitewater kayakers and canoeists.

The following represents a small sample of the SAR calls recorded in B.C. during August, September and October 2013:

  • Three hundred twenty seven SAR members from teams throughout the province of B.C., along with 20 Canadian Rangers and many convergent volunteers searched for seven days trying to locate two missing mushroom pickers in the Lorne Creek area near Terrace. After searching for seven days, the subjects had not been located and the SAR teams stood down. The search was reactivated a week later when one of the two was found alive. Some 35 SAR members then spent several days searching before the second subject was found dead.
  • Ten members from Kent Harrison SAR and Chilliwack HETS teams responded to assist with an injured male after his ATV had gone off a bridge. Rope rescue was required to retrieve the subject, who was then airlifted out of the park.
  • Eighteen members of Squamish SAR responded to rescue a crashed para glider pilot. The subject was located deceased. SAR members used a helicopter to recover the body on behalf of the coroner.
  • Five members of Hope SAR and four Chilliwack HETS team members responded to rescue an injured hiker in Manning Park. The subject was packaged and rescued via HETS and delivered to a waiting ambulance.
  • Fifteen Squamish SAR members responded to rescue an injured climber who fell 300 metres from The Grand Wall on The Chief. The climber was located deceased and at the request of the coroner the body was recovered.
  • Nine North Shore Rescue members responded to assist two hikers believed to be near Coliseum Mountain, in the North Vancouver area. Both subjects were located and brought out of the area by helicopter.
  • Ten Lions Bay, five Squamish and six North Shore Rescue members responded to rescue an injured hiker on Lions Trail above Lions Bay. The subject was brought out to BCAS via HETS.
  • Six Golden SAR members responded to investigate a report of a spot beacon sounding in the Bugaboos as requested by the RCMP. The SAR team located three climbers. One climber was found deceased and the other two were uninjured. HETS rescue was performed and the subjects were rescued. The deceased subject was transported to the B.C. Coroner Service.

Helicopters have always had a role in SAR activities in B.C. given the mountainous terrain. Most SAR teams in the province have
training in hover entry/exit, sling loading and patient transport, but for the past decade, the use of long-line techniques for rapid insertion and extraction of SAR members and patients has become more commonplace. Today, about 15 of the 80 teams in the province have HETS-qualified members.

SAR training session  
Talon pilot Derek Riendeau and HETS spotter practise during a recent SAR training session. (Photo by Paul Dixon)


North Shore Rescue, which serves the communities of North Vancouver and West Vancouver, has developed a reputation as a leader in this area of expertise. North Shore Team Leader Tim Jones may well have the most time on the end of a long-line in B.C. SAR. His introduction to a helicopter long-line came in February 1997. Three teenagers were snowboarding out of bounds on Cypress’ Mount Strachan, when a snow slope collapsed and a 17-year-old female was swept down a 300-metre gully before coming to rest. She survived the slide, but for reasons unknown, walked away from where she had come to rest.

When North Shore Rescue team members arrived on the scene, they followed her footprints downhill for some distance until they discovered she had fallen while trying to cross a creek and was lying unconscious in the water in a severe hypothermic state. Daylight was rapidly fading and rescuers were facing a herculean task in trying to extricate the victim from the mountainside. As Jones recalls, there had been some discussion about using helicopter long-lines in the SAR community at the time, but Blackcomb Ski Patrol and Blackcomb Helicopters were the only ones in the province actually doing it. A phone call was made to Blackcomb and in short order, a helicopter arrived with a member of the Blackcomb Ski Patrol on board. Jones was harnessed alongside the ski patroller and they were long-lined into the site.

“I intubated the girl and secured her airway,” says Jones. “I could see that we had to get her out right away for any chance of survival. She was in hypothermic arrest, but we felt that the hypothermia was saving her. So, the two of us were long-lined out with her in a Bauman bag.” The evacuation had taken minutes, versus the hours that it would have taken to extricate her by ground. Unfortunately the young woman did not survive her injuries, but the incident underscored for Jones the value of using a helicopter long-line.

“Everyone was there trying to save her and it was my introduction to HETS,” he says. “It was stepping into the unknown and there was about a good 30 seconds where it scared the living @#@# out of me.”

In December 2012, Jones and North Shore Rescue returned to the same area for a protracted search for another out-of-bounds snowboarder. The fellow had deliberately crossed the boundary fence on a Sunday morning and almost immediately was in trouble, finding himself in a situation where he could only go down, a common situation on the North Shore mountains where skiers and boarders who venture out-of-bounds find themselves trapped in a world of steep gullies, frozen waterfalls and avalanches chutes. He was not reported missing until after Cypress shut down that night and his car was still in the parking lot. He did have a cellphone and eventually Jones was initially able to talk to him, but he kept shutting the phone off and would not stay in one place, making it difficult to locate him.

helicopter orientation  
Talon pilot Derek Riendeau conducts a helicopter orientation briefing with NSR trainees.
(Photo by Paul Dixon)


Avalanche risk in the area was high and ground searchers found the going tough – and there was no sign of him. This went on for two days. On the Monday night, RCMP Air 1 and a Cormorant from 442 Squadron flew overhead, scanning the area with night vision goggles (NVG) and FLIR, but heavy snow and thick tree cover defeated the technology. Finally, on the Tuesday afternoon, his tracks were discovered by ground searchers who followed them as far as they could, to the top of a 300-foot frozen waterfall. Jones and another team of rescuers was long-lined in with a load of equipment. They rappelled down the waterfall and finally had their man. It was late in the day, darkness was falling and it was their determination that he would not survive a third night on the mountain. Their only hope for extraction was the Cormorant crew from 442 Squadron. The line on the Cormorant’s winch is 290 feet in length and every inch was played out due to the height of the trees and the depth of the gully.

While the Cormorant and its winch are nice, two rescues this past July highlight the flexibility of using smaller helicopters. On a Sunday afternoon, North Shore Rescue received a call for a hiker who had suffered a severe ankle facture after a fall on Cypress Mountain. Within minutes, an initial team of three was on scene after hover-exiting the helicopter. Shortly thereafter, the helicopter returned with a fourth team member who is also an advanced care paramedic. The patient was treated on scene and was extracted by means of a 150-foot long-line and delivered to a waiting ambulance crew at the Cypress parking lot.

As the team members were debriefing the incident, they were requested to respond to a medical rescue at Granite Falls on Indian Arm, 25 km to the east on the far side of North Vancouver.  Arriving on scene by helicopter, they found the Coast Guard hovercraft Siyay on scene with the Royal Canadian Marine SAR lifeboat from North Vancouver and members of Coquitlam SAR. The patient had fallen above the waterfall, suffering possible spinal injuries. Rescuers had reached the patient, but required assistance in extricating him. The helicopter was quickly rigged and North Shore Rescue members long-lined the patient directly out to the hovercraft which had B.C. Ambulance paramedics on board. This call, in particular, was a great example of the level of cooperation that is possible between
different agencies.

An evolution of co-operation

The level of training for SAR volunteers today has evolved from the self-taught pioneers of yesteryear to a high level of professionalism based on continual self-improvement. They are volunteers in the true sense because they are unpaid. They are, however, professional in every sense of the word when it comes to the level of training required and the personal commitment required. There is a basic requirement for most SAR teams in the province of 400 to 500 hours per year, just for the training. Generally, it’s one evening a week and one weekend a month. A day spent with North Shore Rescue during one of its four helicopter training days this year gives an observer a taste of the depth of the training as well as the breadth, which is the ongoing development of the next generation of leaders.

basic requirement for most SAR teams  
There is a basic requirement for most SAR teams in the province of 400 to 500 hours per year, just for the training.
(Photo by Paul Dixon)


Mike Danks, helicopter rescue co-ordinator for North Shore Rescue, talks about the level of preparation and layers of involvement in play took place on that day, which included training for hover enter/exit, HETS observers and HETS technicians.

“I had to figure out all the rotations, who was going to be on what team, and how that would work over the course of the day,” he says. “The other two co-ordinators are still in training, so they each took a group in hand and went through the dry land training, covering the quick-release device and screamer suits. They went through the fine details of how that works. The other portion of their training was the hover entry and exit, the safety briefing with the pilot, going through everything on the helicopter, then going through the step-by-step procedure of the ideal way of how to move when entering or exiting the helicopter. We’re not trying to give them hard and fast ways of doing it, it’s more like demonstrating what works best – we’ve got the experience and this is how we’d like to see you do it.”

When it’s time to work with the helicopter, it’s a matter of emphasizing the importance of being aware of your environment and always staying balanced, Danks says. “A lot of people don’t have experience around the machines, just the noise itself heightens their senses and they start to panic – that’s what we’re really trying to avoid. We’re trying to get them the experience of being around the helicopter in these types of conditions. It’s a training scenario and they’re in a safe environment.”

Within days of their training scenario, NSR team members were called on to make two difficult helicopter rescues. In the first instance, two young hikers had set out on a day hike into a remote area. They became disoriented and found themselves stranded on a cliff in late afternoon. Had they not been able to use their cellphone, they would have been in serious trouble as they could not extricate themselves from their perch; they were not properly dressed, and no one knew where they were going for the day. They were saved largely because the helicopter and HETS techs were available immediately. Four days later, Talon Helicopters’ pilot Derek Riendeau deposited HETS techs through a small opening in towering tree canopy to rescue two hikers who were stranded on the backside of Grouse Mountain.

On Nov. 28, 2013, the Justice Institute of B.C. Foundation (JIBC) at the institute’s annual gala awarded the Dr. Joseph H. Cohen Award for outstanding contributions in the field of public safety North Shore Rescue. Presenting the award, JIBC Chair John Chesman said, “North Shore Rescue is an invaluable resource in our community and we are grateful to this team of volunteers for their dedication in helping keep members of our community safe.”


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