The Bailout Plan

Rescuing B.C.’s Adventure Seekers Not an Easy Proposition
Paul Dixon
October 18, 2016
By Paul Dixon
British Columbia’s volunteer Search & Rescue (SAR) teams are on their way to a record year for callouts at a pace that will see them exceed last year’s total by more than 30 per cent.


This is one record no one wants to see. Their mission is made incalculably more difficult by the two-headed monster they must constantly battle. One head is the ignorance of so many people who fling themselves into harm’s way, while the other is the apathy of the provincial government under whose authority they operate.

Part of the basic human condition is the inability to recognize potential dangers and wholly underestimate the severity and impact of those we do perceive – it can’t happen here and it won’t happen to me. Governments, no matter what their political leaning, have long mastered the art of avoiding those issues that don’t interest them by simply ignoring them or sending them off to study groups or committees when they won’t go away – and this is a prime example.

Every day there are people heading off into that living tourism commercial that is so much of what B.C. is all about. Every day, people head out on some sort of adventure and then, without warning, something happens and they need help and they need it quickly. Far too often, what ever “it” is, it happens as a consequence to something our intrepid adventurer did, or possibly failed to do. All too often, by the time they realize they have a problem, it’s too late for them to get themselves out of it.

Hikers suddenly realize they don’t know where they are or how they got there. As nightfall approaches, they realize they don’t have appropriate clothing or emergency rations. The skiers and boarders who deliberately go out of bounds in search of that perfect powder, find themselves trapped in uncharted territory. I could go on, but the list of examples is endless.

In all too many cases, they include people who deliberately put themselves in jeopardy or at the very least put themselves at risk by not wearing appropriate clothing and footwear and carrying such basic essentials as a whistle, flashlight and emergency rations.

How does one get through to these people? Virtually every park or resort area I’ve been through in recent years has clearly visible signage along the lines of “read this.” I don’t have a magic cure or silver bullet for the human condition, but I do have a few comments about the government side of this two-headed thing. The government (that’s you and me) is getting a damned good deal off the backs of the ground SAR volunteers. B.C. gets professional-grade SAR in every community and region, provided by highly-trained and equally highly motivated SAR members.

And we get it for peanuts – and at that, we make SAR team sit up and beg for the peanuts. SAR teams do get money directly from the provincial government every year, but the lion’s share of their operational budgets boil down to local fundraising efforts and grant applications.

Local fundraising is not a bad thing in and of itself, as it can raise community awareness. But it can be time consuming and when you’re a volunteer, there is only so much time to go around, not to mention that in the smaller and more remote areas of the province, there is a limited population base to draw on. Grant-writing at best is a crap shoot, because there is never any guarantee that last year’s grant will also be next year’s grant. Grant writing is time-consuming and is often an art unto itself. Not everyone is cut out for it.

There has been rustle in local media recently about the idea of paying SAR volunteers. We don’t have time to open that can of worms in this column, but the short answer is SAR volunteers do not want to paid – they most emphatically do not want to be paid.

If you’ve never been a volunteer in an organization at this level, it’s difficult to explain to the uninitiated, but it’s not about the money. It’s like being a blood donor.  You either get it or you don’t.

What SAR people want is a long-term solution to the funding question – create a funding model that allows long-term, multi-year planning. Let them concentrate on the service they provide their communities and the province instead of continuing to force them to continually be on the fund-raising bandwagon or tied to a desk thrashing out another grant application.


Paul Dixon is a freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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