Elliot Lake; the rescuers speak

Maclean’s magazine has an article this month on the rescuer’s point of view on the response to the mall roof collapse in Elliot Lake.

As readers of this blog know, I was rather outspoken on the matter, saying that the decision of HUSAR to withdraw was a safety matter and should not have been the topic of meddling by various levels of politicians. In several conversations with reporters on the topic I asserted that, although I did not know the details and was not an expert on HUSAR, it appeared to me that Mr Neadles made a poor choice of words at the press conference. In his own words, quoting from the Maclean’s Article

“I sure wish I had chosen my words a little bit differently,” Neadles admits now. “We weren’t going anywhere. The word ‘ended’ was misused by me. Our function at that point in time had ended, but there are other functions for us to do. And that’s where we needed to get the authority to do more.”

I had also surmised that what was unfolding, despite the political spin, what exactly what the rescuers were going to do anyway. Read the McLean’s article; Neadles says exactly that:

“Mr. Hefkey and I put it forward that we had a plan that we’d been roughing out, and the premier said: ‘By all means, continue.’ There was no direction. It was just: ‘Put your plan together.’ ”

My disgust is still reserved for how the politicians behaved in this incident; they took a badly worded statement in a press conference and made it look like they had stepped in to save the day. However, I still have a problem with how the media, and the public, responded to the story.

Of course I’m observing the situation from my chair on the west coast, with expertise in a completely different type of rescue, but listening to Neadles speak that day I could identify with a rescuer who was making a difficult safety decision, and not one without precedent.

In January 1999 an avalanche occurred on the Grouse Grind, the most popular hiking trail in British Columbia with over 100,000 hikers a year. Six hikers were caught in the accident, and SAR teams from all over the Lower Mainland responded to rescue them. One person was not found, and SAR teams were withdrawn from the site due to safety concerns. This decision eventually became the subject of a lawsuit, which became moot when the body of the last subject was found in May of the same year.

In 2002 the commercial fishing vessel Cap Rouge II capsized at the mouth of the Fraser River, and five people died. The coast guard responded and within 20 minutes they had rescue divers in the water but were unable to enter the overturned vessel because of safety protocols. While this incident became the subject of the federal inquiry, it highlights that rescuers work within a set of rules, and sometimes have to make decisions based on these rules.

I was not involved in either of those two rescues, but over the past 12 years I’ve been involved in hundreds of tasks, and they all have this in common; safety of the rescuers is the first concern. The rationale is simple; for every subject who needs rescuing, more SAR resources are required. If a rescuer gets hurt, it endangers more rescuers. We work together as a team, and we do not endanger each other.

I can’t remember the number of times I’ve been “held back” on tasks because of weather, terrain, or lack of support — and each time with good reason. Avalanche risk, not properly managed, results in injury and death. Throwing rescuers into the bush with the prospect of bad weather and difficult terrain results in stranded rescuers who become subjects of a rescue themselves.

In January 2007 a hiker fell on some icy snow approximately 1.5 km from the top of the ski resort on Mount Seymour. Two SAR members reached the subject a few hours later, but were stranded by darkness and weather. The next day a 5 member team made it to their location, but the remainder of the 25 members effecting the rescue (including myself) were called back because of increasing avalanche hazard and deteriorating weather conditions. This resulted in the subject and two original rescuers spending a second night out with the 5 additional members. All SAR members and the subject were retrieved on the afternoon of the third day when there was a break in the weather.

This rescue was very close to the ski resort, yet resulted in no less than seven stranded SAR members. A third night on the mountain was a very real possibility.

This rescue illustrated for all involved how easy it was for SAR members to become the subjects of a rescue themselves.

Here in BC where we do more wilderness rescues than anywhere in Canada, we’ve seen the deaths of three SAR volunteers in the past year or so; first Sheila Sweatman in June 2011 then  Beatrice Sorensen and Angie Nemeth in June 2012. While I don’t mean to say that either of these deaths are the direct result of violating safety standards, they do highlight that injury and death are a real possibility despite all precautions.

I’ll be writing more on this topic, specifically the disparity between the public’s perception of “rescue” and reality, in the future.

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