William Fisher Search Review
The running joke at Comox Valley SAR is that if we’re having a social event bring your gear: we’re about to have a task. True to form, our last call out occurred on the way to our annual Christmas party.
Mr. William Fisher had left a doctor’s appointment in Campbell River, BC on Thursday Dec 1st and had not returned home to Port Hardy. Mr. Fisher’s family reported him missing after being unable to reach him Friday. After investigation by the RCMP, it was determined that Mr. Fisher’s debit card had been used at the Sayward Junction store north of Campbell River. His car, a white 1995 Chrysler Concord had been seen at the store as well.
Campbell River SAR was activated by the RCMP to help in the search for Mr. Fisher. Based on the information at hand, SAR was requested to search Highway 19 from Sayward to Port Hardy, a distance of approximately 180 kilometers. In the event Mr. Fisher had an accident and was unable to be seen from the road, search crews would likely be able to find his vehicle by walking along the highway.
During the Christmas party, the search managers were already making plans for the next day’s search. Comox Valley SAR had recently had an intake of Members-In-Training and the managers requested activation of these MITs to help in the pending road search.
I suggested that the communications crew spend some time after the Christmas party programing our radios to utilize amateur radio frequencies on the amateur radio Island Trunk System. Discussions regarding communications problems over the past year had put CVGSAR on the path to using amateur radio and this search, with its vast search area, would be a perfect application for amateur radio in a SAR operation.
After a few hours of reprogramming mobile, handheld and truck radios, I turned in after midnight to get some rest before meeting the 0600 marshal time with everyone else.
Sunday December 4th
Early morning saw approximately 24 CVGSAR members arrive for the task including Search Managers, team leaders, GSAR members and Members-in-Training. Travelling to Campbell River by carpool, we briefed with the Campbell River search manager on the specifics of the search and then continued on to the first command location at Keta Lake, a rest area north of Sayward on Highway 19.
During the travel to Keta Lake, Campbell River SAR was notified of another task, this time a group of missing sledders out of Sayward. Later on in the day, the sledders were found by RCMP and it turns out they had meant to spend the night outdoors.
Once located at command, teams of 3 (two searchers, one driver) were sent on assignment, basically walking both sides of Highway 19 for seven kilometer stretches, examining ditches and embankments for any sign of Mr Fisher or his vehicle. One team from Campbell River SAR was dispatched on bicycle and was given 20km stretches of highway to cover. As each team finished their portion of highway, they were directed to leap frog the next team north and continue with another portion of highway.
During the highway searches, each team marked the start and end points of their highway portion with three SAR ribbons marked with the date/time, team name and task assignment. This was to minimize confusion between teams on the road and to ensure every inch of highway was searched.
As a trained amateur radio operator, I had volunteered for the post of radio operator in the command post. Two CVGSAR members with amateur radio certificates were dispatched with the search teams along the highway and monitored the Island Trunk System and PEPSAR1, the task working channel. At any time of the day, Command was able to utilize the Island Trunk System and reach the amateur operators in the field. These operators were then able to talk to teams closest to them via a relay on PEPSAR1 and get status reports or give out new task assignments.
Command was moved twice to Nimpkish Camp north of Woss and Seven Hills Rest Area north of Port McNeill in order to stay closer to the teams as they travelled further north from Sayward.
One team was dispatched to drive Highway 30 to Port Alice, though this was considered outside of the target search area. One team did cover a portion of Highway 30 on foot, but the entire highway was not walked due to darkness arriving with an early sunset.
RCMP “Air 8” and a Cessna from PEP Air had also been flying long search patterns close the highway, while RCMP members had been driving logging mains originating at Sayward in the off chance Mr. Fisher had taken a wrong turn or had decided to drive down a logging road.
At the end of the day on December 4th, nothing had been found in connection to Mr. Fisher or his vehicle. Search Management travelled to the Port Hardy detachment of the RCMP to brief the officer in charge. Following the search managers return to Command, teams were debriefed and requested to return the following day to search Highway 19 from Campbell River to Sayward. Perhaps he had gone off the highway south of Sayward?
Monday December 5th
Comox Valley SAR members again marshaled at 0600 and one of the Comox Valley search managers assumed command of the task as no Campbell River SAR managers were available.
Because Monday is a normal work day and fewer SAR members would be available, mutual aid calls were placed the previous evening and teams arrived at Campbell River SAR’s hall for 0700. Teams from Nanaimo, Arrowsmith, Alberni Valley and West Coast SAR complimented the teams from Comox Valley and Campbell River. One search manager from Arrowsmith SAR helped out in the command post.
As amateur radio was so successful in keeping teams in touch with command, the same tasking was undertaken with amateur radio operators spread out with teams along the highway.
For the assignments, the decision was made to send some teams directly north to Port Hardy and work southbound on Highway 19, checking likely areas to search. The assignment was to still walk the highway but avoid or skip areas where the terrain was clearly visible and unlikely to hide a large car, such as rock-faces and grassy shoulders.
Other teams were tasked to walk or bicycle both sides of the highway, but starting at the Elk Falls Paper Mill north of Campbell River and working their way north towards Port Hardy. At this point, Command moved to Roberts Lake, a rest area approximately 30 kilometers north of Campbell River.
I was assigned to the field this day, with another amateur radio SAR member taking my place in the command post. I worked personally with two members from Alberni Valley SAR.
During this search day, RCMP “Air 8” was again in the air for the afternoon though PEP Air did not get off the ground in Port McNeill or Nanaimo due to fog and weather concerns. Citizens on Patrol and RCMP from Sayward were also active on this day, searching every logging road to intersect Highway 19 to a distance of 5 kilometers.
After searching the highway and leap-frogging all day with other teams, the call was made to suspend searching around 1630. Search teams working northbound and southbound on Highway 19 had met around the south end of Nimpkish Lake. Command ordered all teams to return to base, which had moved to Keta Lake Rest Area by this time.
Once all teams had returned to command at Keta Lake, we were informed that the RCMP had received a reliable tip of a white car travelling on logging roads north of Campbell River, but south of Sayward. Though this was a few days previous, RCMP considered this a valid tip and search teams were to return in the morning to perform a logging road search.
Tuesday December 6th
Tuesday again brought mutual aid teams to Campbell River SAR’s hall for a 0700 marshal time. Due to scheduling conflicts, a search manager was not available from Campbell River or Comox Valley so a search manager from Arrowsmith SAR was pressed into service. Another manager from Cowichan Valley SAR assisted.
With the information from the witness, RCMP and search management decided to search the logging roads that might lead from the point last seen. Search teams comprising members from Campbell River, Comox Valley, Alberni Valley, Arrowsmith and Nanaimo SAR were divided into teams comprising two members per vehicle, with two vehicles per team.
Assigned to various sections of logging road, one vehicle per team would leave the highway and drive to end of the assigned road, mark with ribbon and return to the highway, searching all spur roads where a car such as Mr. Fisher’s may have travelled. The second vehicle on the team was to search all spur lines from the highway until meeting up with the first part of the team. Upon meeting each other, the task would be concluded and the full team would return to base for another assignment.
Amateur radio was employed less this day, primarily due to the team’s proximity to command. It was used, but nowhere near the extent of the previous two days. Teams were generally able to reach command or relay through another team using PEPSAR1.
I was assigned to team Charlie 1 and was assigned to search the Pye Lake West logging road, searching all spur roads and campsites along the way. During our search of the Pye Lake Forest Recreation site, we noticed a large white object on the other side of the lake but we suspected it was a large rock or cliff face. Gaining a higher vantage point, we were clearly able to determine it was a rock. Note to self: Bring binoculars.
After the completion of our task and return to base, we were debriefed by the search manager and were told that Mr. Fishers vehicle had been found by members of the general public on Highway 30, the road to Port Alice. Subsequent investigation by the RCMP discovered Mr. Fisher deceased inside his vehicle and SAR was put on standby for a possible embankment recovery.
40 Campbell River, Comox, Nanaimo, Cowichan, Alberni Valley Rescue and Westcoast SAR members and 4 PEP Air continued the search for a missing vehicle with occupant between Sayward & Port Hardy. SAR was stood down after subject was located deceased in the vehicle where it had gone over an embankment.
In the end, no embankment recovery was required and SAR was stood down by the RCMP.
Unfortunately the task had an undesirable result, but hopefully the family has some closure from finding him. My heart goes out the family.
From a SAR perspective, this task was a huge undertaking and covered a massive piece of Vancouver Island.
Search teams walked from Campbell River to Port Hardy, a distance of 230 kilometers, some of it twice.
Comox Valley SAR volunteers committed over 600 person hours to this task, let alone the contributions of the other teams from Campbell River, Cowichan, Arrowsmith, Nanaimo, Alberni Valley, and West Coast SAR. RCMP, PEP Air, Citizens on Patrol and Emcon Services also contributed significant time searching and patrolling the roads and highways of the North Island.
One highlight of this task was the successful use of amateur radio. Amateur radio and the Island Trunk System made this search happen. Search managers were able to keep in touch with all teams at most times and this allows for a greater degree of safety. Walking along a two lane highway in the winter with logging trucks and fast traffic isn’t the safest of jobs.
Comox Valley will now be moving full speed ahead with amateur radio training and equipment purchases, in part because this task demonstrated the value of amateur radio for future assignments.
I’d like to thank the Island Trunk System and amateur radio operators everywhere for allowing uninhibited use of the ITS during this search.
Merrick Grieder, VA7VM
Comox Valley Ground Search & Rescue
Comox Valley Emergency Program – Communications