What does an under-funded SAR system look like?

I’ve talked about SAR funding on this blog a lot in the past year. It’s been on my mind, and on that of other SAR members in BC, mostly because of a grant a few years back that brought together groups from all over BC to talk about the funding and delivery model, and the publication of the BCSARA Discussion Paper last year.

Now it’s easy for SAR people to… let’s say “whine” about funding, about how there’s always a need for more equipment or training. However, if you want to be believable, you have to have evidence – you need a verifiable estimate of the current level of funding, and an estimate of what a “fully funded” SAR system looks like – that is, a system funded to perform the tasks it is asked to do in a safe and effective manner.

Without these two pieces of information, you run the risk of always seeming to want a new toy, and to always be coming cap-in-hand to the public, to your politicians, asking for more. At some point, more is wasting money – with equipment that is never used, with training for things that are highly unlikely to happen, and with duplication of services that are already provided by other agencies.

Underfunding

Today I wanted to talk about under funding. BCSARA has already done an excellent job analysing what it takes to run the SAR system, and it’s a start. I wanted to think about what a system that is under funded would look like, and how it would be likely to fail.

So what happens when a SAR team doesn’t have enough money? Do people stop being rescued? Do people die in the backcountry?

No, they don’t.

An under-funded SAR team does not refuse to go and rescue people. What it does, I’m sorry to say, is cut corners.

Cost Cutting

The first thing that happens in an underfunded team is they put off training and equipment purchases for lack of funds. They repair existing or outdated equipment rather than buy new. They stock equipment on their truck to be used on tasks rather than issuing it to the team members to make sure they have it with them, and they are familiar with its use. They search for bargains in equipment rather than buying what they need to get the job done.

They also rely more on SAR members buying their own equipment. This is OK to a point, but team managed equipment is under a maintenance program, and individually owned equipment is not, and that’s a problem.

On a task that requires a certain level of training, an underfunded SAR team may fudge the conditions or the requirements to be trained to a certain standard in order to get the job done. A lot of SAR calls are life or death, so the pressure is very high to get something done. This is the “mission first” mentality that seeps in when the team is ill equipped or trained to do a task.

Safety

The safety of SAR members and their subjects is the first thing to fall away when a team is under funded. How do we tell when safety is compromised? It’s very hard. The symptoms of insufficient equipment and improper training are not easy to spot. A “successful” search and rescue in British Columbia is one where the subjects and the rescuers live, which is the norm, but is there any reporting of close calls, or near misses? Is there any audit of safety and training? Is there any analysis or investigation into how a task is done, and how it could be improved? Is there any formal way to share these results with the rest of the SAR community?

The answer to these questions is, disturbingly, no. And without such oversight, it is impossible to tell how we are doing.

Aside from the fact that any SAR system that considers itself to be composed of “unpaid professionals” should subject itself, as a matter of course, to professional level accountability and scrutiny, the lack of these simple checks means that if the system is under funded it will be very hard to tell when safety is compromised.

Are we OK?

Is the BC SAR system under funded? If the claim is that we are, then it’s quite possible that SAR members throughout BC are risking their lives and may not even know it. Faced with the task of executing SAR operations in BC, they may not even have the training to realize the risks they are taking.

SAR teams in BC should take a good hard look at the benefits of clear and open communications between SAR groups. Having a set of eyes from outside the team taking a look at your policies and procedures, your training and equipment can be the best possible insight into where the problems are and how to improve them. You may not be able to see the problem on your own.

By working together, we can make things safer for everyone.

Thanks for reading.

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9 comments on “What does an under-funded SAR system look like?
  1. Doug Fraser says:

    Hi Mike…another good read…thank you.

    I am going to disagree however with your assertion that there is no reporting of close calls / near misses, analysis, investigation, and sharing of results with the rest of the SAR community.

    Fortunately, in my experience, near misses are rare, but when they do occur we report them to the regional office. There is a WorksafeBC requirement to report near misses.

    SAR teams informally analyze tasks through the task debriefing, and when requested and/or warranted a more formal review is conducted with participation from a regional manager and/or the SAR Specialist. The results of the formal reviews are available for the entire SAR community.

    Doug Fraser
    Chilliwack SAR

    • Hi Doug; Honestly I did not know there is a “requirement” to report near misses to worksafe. This could be a failing on my part, or a failing of the SAR community in stressing this requirement.

      I intend to talk about the review process in another post. I know it’s there but I find it lacking. There’s no systematic review, or standard way of communicating the results of these reviews to the rest of the community.

      SAR in BC badly needs a yearly AGM where everyone can come and discuss these things.

  2. Doug Fraser says:

    Hi Mike,
    Re requirement to report a near miss – In my experience there are a lot of employers/employees in BC who are either unaware of this requirement, or worse…choose to ignore it. It’s everyone’s responsibility to be familiar with WorksafeBC regulation. Perhaps BCSARA, the RM’s and the SAR Specialist can ensure this info is passed on to all SAR teams.

    I do agree that the review process is lacking and inconsistently applied. We’re due this spring (I think) for our annual SAR Mgr meeting in the SW Region…perhaps a topic for the agenda.
    Cheers,
    Doug

  3. Neil Brewer says:

    Hi Mike,

    As Doug says, there are reviews and the ‘official’ SAR reviews that I’ve attended over the years have been very beneficial in identifying deficiencies as well as ‘best practices’. We should all be reviewing our incident responses to discuss safety issues/concerns and/or how to improve the outcome.

    The whole WorkSafe BC relationship is somewhat confusing. Although the program is administered by them, we are not ‘workers’ under the Act. That raises a lot of questions about reporting. If we were an employee/employer in the traditional sense we would be required to demonstrate much more in the way of compliance.

    You make some interesting observations about ‘under funding’ and the potential ramifications of it. I’ve often wondered when some form of ‘audit’ process would be developed and implemented to perhaps establish if a SAR group is actually qualified to respond or not. I think there is the fear that the results of an audit would show a huge list of ‘non-conformances’ which in turn may render a resource non-operational. Then what happens?

    We have a very good volunteer GSAR structure in BC and I feel some very effective work is being done to constantly improve it. As long as we all stay on the same page and work together with common goals I think it will continue to improve. You only have to look back a couple of decades to see how far we’ve come.

    Regards,

    Neil

  4. Gentlemen,

    The information that was provided to the SAR Specialist was incorrect, we are workers under the Act and the regulations do apply to us.

    Section 3(5), which applies to us sets out that,

    Where a person or group of persons carries on an undertaking that the Board thinks is in the public interest, the Board may, on the terms and conditions it directs,

    (a) deem the person or group of persons, whether or not any of them receive payment for their services, to be workers for the purposes of this Act;

    (b) on approval of the Lieutenant Governor in Council, deem the person or group of persons to be workers of the Crown in right of the Province;

    We are deemed workers under s.3 (5) which is why we have WCB coverage, you can’t get it if you’re not a worker.

    Part 3 of the Act which deals with the regulations sets out that,

    Subject to subsection (2), this Part applies to

    (a) the Provincial government and every agency of the Provincial government,

    (b) every employer and worker whose occupational health and safety are ordinarily within the jurisdiction of the Provincial government,

    Under Part 3 worker is defined as,

    (a) a worker as defined in section 1, and

    (b) a person who is deemed to be a worker under Part 1 or the regulations under that Part, or to whom that Part applies as if the person were a worker,

    It’s the b part that applies to us, and especially the bit that says “or to whom Part 1 applies as if that person were a worker.

    So to get coverage you must be a worker or deemed to be a worker and if you are deemed to be a worker then the regulations apply to you and to the organization which is your deemed employer.

    Not all near misses, I hate that term, a near miss is a hit, need be reported, S. 172 sets out that,

    (1) An employer must immediately notify the Board of the occurrence of any accident that

    (a) resulted in serious injury to or the death of a worker,

    (b) involved a major structural failure or collapse of a building, bridge, tower, crane, hoist, temporary construction support system or excavation,

    (c) involved the major release of a hazardous substance, or

    (d) was an incident required by regulation to be reported.

    and at the moment the regulations do not contain any list or definition of an incident that needs to be reported except those set out in s. 172.

    Trust me on this it’s what I do to bread on the table.

    So Doug was partially right some incidents do need to be reported to the Board but Neil is in error in believing we don’t have to demonstrate compliance.

    From personal experience I can say safety is never on the agenda at debriefings unless something went seriously sideways.

    Kevin

    • Kevin;
      In the Sweatman Worksafe report, WSBC states (page 6)

      Although these volunteers are not considered “workers” under the Workers Compensation Act, WorkSafeBC conducted an investigation into this incident because of section 107(1):

      The purpose of this Part is to benefit all citizens of British Columbia by promoting occupational health and safety and protecting workers and other persons present at workplaces from work related risks to their health and safety {emphasis added in the report}

      In this case, there were workers of a towing company assisting in the vehicle recover operation thereby rendering the scene a workplace. The public safety volunteers were “other persons” present at the workplace, pursuant to section 107(1).

      I believe that the distinction is a technicality. While I have not read the testimony at the subsequent inquest, I believe that SAR members are held to the standards that are accepted as best practises by the industry, despite any applicability of WSBC rules, which are usually just adoption of existing standards anyway.

      The fact that our WSBC coverage does not depend on adherence to the rules should not leave anyone to believe that the rules do not apply.

      I’m not sure where your insight into this situation derives, but would love to hear more about your opinions.

  5. Kevin, Doug, and Neil;
    I appreciate your frank contributions here. Clearly some of this has to be cleared up.

    As recently as yesterday I saw a SAR member write ‘WorkSafe doesn’t apply to us”

    My feel has always been that regardless if WorkSafe regulations apply or not, we should comply with them since, as the recent inquest showed us, there will be some very pointed questions asked as to why we did not comply with what are clearly accepted best practises.

    Neil, while BC’s SAR system has come a long way, and I don’t mean to underestimate or belittle the massive efforts it has taken to bring it to where it is, we do need improvements.

    The teams are fragmented, and siloed. People develop their own policies, procedures, and internal lore, and cross-training and development is limited.

    I think that many things would become easier to deal with if there was a yearly AGM and conference where people could come and talk about just these issues.

  6. Shauneen Nichols says:

    Thanks Michael for a great article. I have found this link to be very helpful as both a learning and teaching tool with my SW team and have often wished for something similar within our SAR community….The National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System (NFFNMRS)

  7. Michael,

    I had a reply in the making and then pushed the wrong key so if you see a partial reply kicking around ignore it.

    I was an Area Office Manager for ten or so years with the WCB, first in Prince Rupert, when there was an office in Prince Rupert, and then Nanaimo. For the past 24 years I’ve been a consultant to employers regarding safety and claims management.

    When I first saw the SAR specialist’s comments re the regulations I considered them to be wrong. I did a little checking around amongst my confreres in this line of work and they all agreed, if you have coverage you must be a worker and if you’re a worker, deemed or not, then the regulations apply.

    Apparently that’s why the Forest Service stopped pulling “volunteers” off the highway to fight fires, they became deemed workers of the provincial government, the regulations then applied and the Forest Service could not provide the required training in the time available.

    Having said all that I’m OK with the the WCB inspectors believing that the regulations do not apply to us as it keeps the more bureaucratic of them out of my hair. On the other hand I work hard to ensure that our group complies with the regulations as written.

    As an aside if the WCB stepped into the Sweatman incident using s.107(1) then they must have made a decision that that was a workplace as defined by Part 3 of the Act,

    “workplace” means any place where a worker is or is likely to be engaged in any work and includes any vessel, vehicle or mobile equipment used by a worker in work.

    The inspection arm of the WCB are quite capable of great incompetence viz. the Burns Lake fire where they were unable to write any orders but sent the matter to Crown anyway, all of which then blew up in their faces as Crown declined to act for lack of evidence of criminality.

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