A response to North Shore Rescue

A response to North Shore Rescue
Flying over Whistler Village in 2008

A few days ago, Tim Jones of North Shore Rescue posted “A Vision for Change for SAR in BC” where he made three simple proposals which I will reproduce below.


Hasty Team Standby Pay for high volume SAR teams in order to maintain a 24/7 posture to respond to critical SAR Tasks is now required.


Dedicated light intermediate helicopters for SAR work in BC. The helicopter and skilled pilots are the vital link in Mountain SAR. Asking private operators to have machines sitting unpaid waiting for a SAR call will bankrupt them.


Communications Communications Communications

A provincial communications system that mirrors Forestry . The current patch work system does not provide the effective safety net required for SAR operations in this province.

Tim is to be applauded for taking the lead on this, and opening up a public discussion that has evolved from these specific items to a more general discussion on the issue of funding for SAR groups, which is something I hold to be the most important issue to be dealt with by the SAR community as a whole. I will deal with my thoughts on SAR funding at a later date.

However, there are eighty SAR groups in BC, and 14 in the southwest region of the province alone. Mr Jones does not speak for all SAR members just as I do not. His input is valuable as an experienced SAR member with expertise in a very busy area adjacent to Vancouver. I would like to add my input to this discussion here.

The Discussion

After some questions to members of North Shore Rescue, the post on their web site has been altered somewhat to clarify the original position. Specifically, their post has been changed to add some detail to the scope of the proposals.

The third proposal, on communication, was already addressed by my colleague from Comox SAR in his guest post earlier this week and I fully support that position — that the muti-million dollar BC Forest Service repeater network be made available to SAR members immediately.

On Helicopter Availability

The second proposal has been changed to indicate that the “dedicated light intermediate helicopters” of the original text was meant to refer to paying a helicopter company to keep a machine and pilot available during fire season, or during periods of high demand, and NOT (as several readers commented to me via email and by phone) a proposal to purchase a dedicated helicopter.

Clarified in this way, the proposal makes more sense as the scope is more clearly delineated.

EMBC’s southwest region accounts for 36% of the incidents in BC annually. This region is served by 14 SAR groups who contract helicopter services to a small group of helicopter companies who have experienced mountain pilots who can perform Class “D” (long line) rescues. During fire season, many of these pilots may be busy elsewhere in the province. Paying one or two of these companies to maintain a helicopter “on call” for the busiest weekends of the year (historically July and August first long weekends) seems to make sense to me.

Putting it another way, the call volume of the teams from the Sea to Sky all the way to the Fraser Valley would seem to warrant the cost of having a helicopter available to respond. Stationing a helicopter at Pitt Meadows airport would place the machine at an almost equal distance to all areas of this region.

Scheduling rescue services

About five years ago I was talking with a member of North Shore Rescue when I brought up the fact that they were easily the busiest team in the province, and it was close to the time when they would have to change their call-out procedures to maintain a schedule of members who would commit to be available for blocks of time. This was with reference to the long line rescue group, and the need to keep a limited set of specially trained members available.

My point at the time was that this was already being done.


SAR managers are specially trained to manage a search, and no search in BC can happen without them. Being a limited pool of specially trained members, my own SAR team maintains a rotating schedule of eight SAR managers, with three managers being identified as being “on duty” at any given time. They commit to maintaining a high level of availability, communicating with the other duty managers, and basically clearing their schedule to respond to calls for a period of time. When someone needs a break or goes on holiday we swap shifts. We have been doing this for at least the last decade, perhaps longer, all year long.

A similar system is used by members of at least one Royal Canadian Marine SAR station (also volunteers). A schedule is maintained where four certified responders maintain their availability within 15 minutes of their boat at all times while they are on duty.

I have heard, but cannot confirm, that this is the case for some volunteer fire units that have call volumes of over 100 incident per year. I would love it if someone provided feedback in the comments about this.

Whenever you have a specialized resource, you need to schedule the resource’s availability.

The culture of most SAR groups is that the pager goes off and anyone who is available responds immediately. However, once you have more than one level of certification and you have that smaller limited pool of responders, the obvious thing to do is to maintain a schedule of who will be available to respond, just as my SAR group has done. This system works as we always know who is available since we are always monitoring it.

In other words, perhaps what has to change is not whether a SAR member is paid to respond, but the culture of the team management. We already have a solution to this particular problem. Ultimately, scheduling SAR members to be available is the same as scheduling a helicopter.

Mutual Aid

When one SAR group doesn’t have enough resources to respond to a search, they ask other SAR groups to assist. This includes SAR management, technical rescue, communications equipment, and helicopter rescue services. This system works extremely well, and allows resources to be moved throughout BC when needed.

Tim seems to be concerned that there be a small group for initial response in areas of high demand, presumably (though not explicitly stated) a highly trained, experienced group with medical, mountain rescue, and long line rescue training. Again, presumably, because they are beginning to see the strain of keeping these kind of members available during periods of high call volume.

This is exactly the justification my own SAR team used when we proposed to develop just such a group over the past four years. We saw that NSR, as the busiest SAR group in BC, could easily have all of their trained members tied up in a rescue, leaving us with no access to the helicopter rescue resource which we now consider to be an essential part of the SAR toolkit (something I think very few would argue with). This is what led my team to make the very difficult and expensive decision to built our own capability.

This culminated last year with creation of  our helicopter rescue unit, resulting in a team of 13 highly trained members. Unfortunately, as our group completed training we were notified of the Class “D” Equipment issue that I have written about elsewhere (still ongoing), which temporarily grounded every long line rescue group in BC. My group, not having any equipment, remains grounded until the certification requirements are met.

Since we were grounded, we have made extensive use of North Shore Rescue’s skills this summer, each time recognizing, as Tim clearly does, that the number of trained members, helicopters and pilots (see above) are limited and that if any of these three components are not available then the rescue can not happen: very bad for the subject.

Having our own group operational would have reduced NSR’s load.

A simple solution to this problem is to make use of the experienced members of other local teams under mutual aid as we do with other forms of technical rescue. Once my group is operational, we can maintain a schedule of personnel to be available during periods of high demand. With our lower call volume, and situated very close to the North Shore, our response times will be just as timely as NSR’s responses to our area.

Training some members of Lions Bay SAR, the majority of whom live in Vancouver, would add additional rescuers to the mix.

Coordinating limited resources during times of high demand is what SAR groups already do, extending it to include rapid response just makes sense.

The continuing discussion

The BC Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) is the body elected by the SAR members of BC to represent them. BCSARA has a web site where any SAR member can obtain an account, and log in to the online forum where ideas on funding and improving Search and Rescue in BC are exchanged.

There are regional representatives who are also elected and tasked with keeping track of the issues for a particular region, and taking them to the board. Also sitting on the board are representatives from the various SAR stakeholder groups: the Fire Chief’s Association of BC, BC Ambulance, Emergency Management BC, the RCMP, and the British Columbia Association of Municipal Police. The directors include a former high ranking RCMP member, the former director of the Provincial Emergency Program, and other search and rescue experts.

If any SAR member in BC has a concern about safety and the ability to respond to a SAR incident, the quickest way for you to access the resources of the agencies that are responsible for SAR is to contact your regional director.

There are many voices in the discussion on the future of SAR in BC, and many areas that can be improved to make the system more efficient, safer, and effective for the entire province. Feel free to add your comments below.

I’d like to re-iterate my invitation to any SAR member who would like the opportunity to write a guest post on an issue near and dear to your heart to contact me with your proposal. 

10 Comments on “A response to North Shore Rescue

  1. Just a clarification Mike. The director that you refer to as the former head of the RCMP in BC was actually a Sergeant in the Operational Readiness Section and former RCMP Representative of the BC Search and Rescue Advisory Committee. Not to diminish his stature because he is an extremely valued member of our Board and has hung around long after his retirement from the RCMP, but wanted to clarify.

  2. I would like to comment on the radio communications aspect of the discussion. I agree that there are issues with the current situation that leave some of the remote teams in a very risky predicament and that they may be left on their own to look after everything. The need for a repeater system or some other equivalent is clear. I have been involved in radio comms with my team for 18 years and we have nothing other than some handheld radio’s at this point. Thankfully we have very good mutual aid from the other regional teams that have Satellite Phone capabilities, and numerous Amateur Radio Operators. Some teams cover a vast geographic area without significant cell coverage, such as ours.

    “The third proposal, on communication, was already addressed by my colleague from Comox SAR in his guest post earlier this week and I fully support that position — that the muti-million dollar BC Forest Service repeater network be made available to SAR members immediately.”

    This sounds like a good idea, until you hear the usage of their repeater system during fire season. As I write this the Southeast Fire Center is very, very busy. I see no realistic dual agency usage of their system at this time of year, when they are also depending on it as the lifeline for their crews. During the winter it’s no problem, but the majority of the calls in this area are during summer.
    I think that the best option available for the interior SAR teams is to use the ham radio VHF repeaters. They have very good coverage and lots of them are linked together. In some places this may be the only option. The clear advantage is that they are already established and currently have no other services using them for critical operations. Perhaps we could certify all of our team members if no other solution is available, or the Amateur community disagrees with with their bands being commandeered.

    This is my 2 cents on the issue and I know there will be other points on it. I am happy to be part of the conversation

    Ivan DeLisle

    • Ivan, very good comments on the issue. I assume you know more about it than I do, although I am an amateur radio operator I don’t use it as much as I should.

      It’s unfortunate that the highest call volume in BC comes during fire season, and the sheer volume of workers and equipment in the field gives them a clear priority on the repeater system.

      Using the existing system would be of immdiate benefit in areas and during times where there are no fires, as any repeater system is better than nothing. Establishing a protocol for when the repeaters may be used would solve many communications problems immediately.

      In the longer term, adding capacity to the existing repeater sites; additional repeaters, additional frequencies etc, would extend the bandwidth. We could prioritize the areas of the province with the highest number of fires.

  3. Interior teams in the Central region, and specifically my experience with Central Okanagan SAR have had considerable success, with both encouraging SAR members to obtain their HAM license, and integrating Emergency communications members who are Amateur Radio, Marine, and Aeronautical qualified operators into the group as non-GSAR members. What this means during times of emergency is that the network of amateur radio repeaters are made available for use, exactly the purpose Industry Canada had in mind for this type of repeater licences. These amateur radio operators are also part of Emergency Management BC resources along with Ground SAR, Emergency Social Services, and Air resources.

  4. An alternative opinion re: dedicated SAR helicopters and why I think that is a bad idea.

    to review Here is the idea originally put forth:
    “Dedicated light intermediate helicopters for SAR work in BC. The helicopter and skilled pilots are the vital link in Mountain SAR. Asking private operators to have machines sitting unpaid waiting for a SAR call will bankrupt them.”

    Why this is a bad idea:

    the focus is on the statement -“… have machines sitting unpaid waiting for a SAR call will bankrupt them” states clearly two things

    1) the model as stated is financially unsound. This often yields decision making based on what’s best financially to recover costs, and politically expedient by the government of the day; not a good idea when dealing with people’s lives literally dangling from the end of a rope.

    2) I would much rather get into a helicopter with a pilot that is skilled in a variety of tasks, and flies the BC mountains regularly on a consistent basis all over BC, in different terrain, weather, than a pilot “sitting waiting for a SAR call”

    3) the current model uses several private contractors based in the interior (Golden, Penticton), and lower mainland (Chilliwack, North Vancouver, Squamish/Whistler), based on operational need, available within the parameters of the allowable pilot flight times, weather, daylight, and machine maintenance schedules. I would dare to argue that having multiple private contractors, especially in the high operational areas, with multiple trained pilots, multiple machines, would yield a higher readiness and availability status than the proposed dedicated machine model.

    As a comparison, just ask the RCMP, who use the dedicated machine model how often their machines are not available because of limited pilot availability, or machine down time, and compare that to the availability of multiple private contractors.

    4) Has the availability ever shown to be a problem? I know it has once in the Kootenays, but my understanding when it comes to dropping water on a fire, or delivering a pallet of equipment to a mining camp, that saving a life takes precedence for these operators.

    There is a solution available to all SAR teams, where immediate recovery of people’s lives by helicopter is deemed the best fit solution – and that is the availability of the Cormorant helicopters from 442 SAR squadron in Comox, or the 416 machines out of the airforce base in Cold Lake, Alberta.

    Of note, is the model used in Europe is still a private contractor delivers the service, even where the demands makes the model financially sustainable.

    I’d like to see the data for the rationale put forward, so that the idea’s merit are supported by facts, and trends. I understand we are looking to the future to forestall a potential failure, where someone’s life is lost because of an overloaded SAR system.

  5. I fully understand that BC is very different and that the way emergency services work is handled differently and that the approach can not be copied one to one.

    In Germany Mountain rescue teams have different huts/stations in their response areas where a standby team is stationed at times when a high call volume can be expected on a volunteer basis. This is often on weekends and holidays.

    In Germany Mountain Rescue teams partner with emergency response agencies/services that already have helicopters on stand by. The Rescue teams work with specially equipped air ambulance, Police and military helicopters which are already on standby to respond to emergencies ( http://bit.ly/155DFqM ) . These helicopters are equipped for mountain rescue and are flown by highly skilled and experienced crew. The Rescue teams train with the different helicopter providers depending on which helicopters are available in the area. An added bonus is that German air ambulances fly with 1 pilot + 1 Paramedic/flight technician + 1 Doctor. So that when air ambulances are responding there is a doctor available that has winch training and can begin high level medical care at the scene in cooperation with Mountain Rescue Volunteers which have more experience/training for extracting the subject.

    This is a very nice video of a joint exercise including the German federal police and mountain rescue Volunteers http://bit.ly/19PyX28

    Communication is less of a problem in Germany where the sar teams use the same radio systems as police, fire and ambulance services. Also Germany is smaller allowing for much better coverage as there is no real “Back Country”.

  6. Some good discussion here, however it’s quite disappointing to see one poster obviously trying to grind an axe at the expense of discussing changes that will improve SAR in BC and outcomes for the people that require a SAR response.
    It is a fact that BC advertises itself as an outdoor adventure destination. It is a fact that SAR responses are on the increase and are requiring considerably more technical skill and medical capability than ever before.
    It is also a fact that BC Ambulance service has been cutting back or stopping ambulance paramedics from responding to assist people in need in a SAR setting. This has resulted in “downloading” of responses to volunteer SAR teams and subsequent increases in call volume and medical responsibility.
    These factors have pushed some SAR teams to record or near record call volumes recently.
    It’s time for progress and it’s time for change.
    It’s also time we dropped the axes that are being ground here and work together on this.
    I have not always agreed with Tim Jones, but I agree with on this issue. I also applaud him for his temerity in speaking out in the interest of bettering all SAR teams.
    If you read his proposal, it clearly is intended to be something for the benefit of backcountry users and SAR team members. It is not for the betterment of NorthShore Rescue or any one specific group. It does not single out a specific group or team. It singles out “busy SAR teams” and speaks to improving them.
    Let’s work together on this. Let’s drop any past issues and move forward.
    Let’s make SAR in BC better.

    • I’m a SAR volunteer and a BCAS paramedic and I see no evidence of a policy change towards SAR tasks from BCAS. Can you elaborate on what you are calling a ‘fact’? There’s been a clear line regarding on-duty BCAS paramedic participation in SAR tasks for a long time, with no recent changes.

      Of course, some on-duty BCAS paramedics still take part in SAR tasks as per some unwritten, unknown, misunderstood, understanding…

  7. Miles, thanks for taking the time to comment.

    I’m not sure who you are referring to regarding grinding an axe. If a public discussion is to be had, then everyone deserves a voice. Merely falling in line behind one proposal is not a discussion.

    I would of course prefer those discussions to occur on the BCSARA board where almost 300 knowledgeable SAR members participate and exchange information on just these matters all of the time. These issues are not new concerns.

    Sadly, nobody from NSR has brought any issues forward for examination there. So we debate it in public instead.

    I hope you see that by merely holding a different opinion of how to move forward is not a bad thing. I happen to believe that paying SAR members is a terrible idea when there is excess capacity built into the SAR system.

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