On a sustainable funding model for SAR in BC

On a sustainable funding model for SAR in BC

As I have posted previously on SAR team call volumes, and the disparity in SAR funding, there is no coherent model for funding Search and Rescue in British Columbia.

The current system of Search and Rescue in BC has an amazing track record, with most incidents being resolved within 24 hours, and almost all of them resulting in lives saved. However, as call volumes increase across BC, any weak spots in the response model are going to be stressed. Under funded groups with less than adequate equipment are going to be affected first.

As I see it, the problem is that SAR funding is a patchwork of grants and donations that is not equitable, not rational, and has no oversight. It leaves some areas well covered, and others dangerously under-serviced.

A solution would be some simple changes to this model that would allow SAR groups to do long term planning, would direct resources to where there is the most need, and would see some measure of accountability to allow SAR groups to manage their funds more effectively.

Emergency Management BC pays for all search operations, including helicopter time, and has reimbursement rates for various aspects of SAR that you can read about on their web site. Let me reiterate this; SAR teams bear no costs for actually performing a rescue — all operational rescue costs (as long as the team operates within it’s actual capabilities) are borne by the province, to the tune of about 7 million dollars a year (verbally communicated).

What is under consideration here is the cost for a SAR team to acquire gear, to train, and to do long term planning.

Current Situation

The current situation for funding SAR teams is a patchwork of revenue sources including public donations, grants, and money contributed through city, municipal and district budgets that do not bear any relationship to the call volume of the area served, or the needs of the individual SAR group.

Not Equitable

The current funding model is not equitable, in that resources are not put where they are needed. I illustrated this in my analysis of the top 16 SAR groups where I showed that funding per call varied by as much as 60%, an amount that cannot be explained by differences in type of rescue since operational costs are handled by the province, and the comparison shows teams with similar training and response models.

As has been recently demonstrated in the media and social media, the claims of one SAR group are widely reported, while the plight of most of the other groups in BC is largely ignored.

Without an analysis of SAR incidents from the provincial perspective, it is not possible to understand the scope of the problem of where funds are most needed. Any single SAR group only has a local perspective and can only speak to their local needs, and even those claims should be examined on their merits.

Not Stable

Most SAR groups apply for grants from casino funds, and from the BC Gaming Branch which distribute part of the proceeds from gambling to eligible non profit organizations. SAR groups compete for a limited pot of funds, and are regularly denied their applications for funding, or receive reduced grant amounts. Groups are funded by their ability to eloquently convince granting agencies of their need for funds, and sometimes by their political acumen; convincing a local MLA to support your cause seems to help.

A lack of stable funding creates a situation where SAR groups are unable to plan for more than one year of operations as each grant has to be spent within the financial year, and there are no guarantees of future grants. This has changed slightly in the past few years with the relaxation of rules regarding spending, but the situation is still a “boom and bust” model where teams feel they have to put together proposals that are similar to government “megaprojects” — some piece of equipment or training that eats the majority of the grant funds.

This is in stark opposition to what SAR groups really need which is a guaranteed amount of funding that will allow them to deliver safe, effective and timely rescue services to their communities.

No Oversight

Each SAR group tends to operate autonomously with regard to what they decide to apply for, and the agency deciding where the grant money goes has no expertise in SAR. This results in a situation where a SAR group that makes a convincing application can be granted money for a project that may not in fact be needed.

Added into this mix is the fact that there is only an ad-hoc coordination between SAR groups.

The result is that no central body is evaluating what the most pressing resource needs are for a region, or for the province as a whole.

I’m not implying that money is wasted, only that there is no consideration given to where the money could be best used in any particular year. Without oversight in the granting model there is no rationality in the process.

A Rational SAR Funding Model

The first step to a sustainable SAR funding model is stable, equitable and rational funding based on an analysis of needs, and coordinated via a central oversight group. Ideally this funding model would have the following characteristics.

  • A guaranteed level of funding for SAR groups depending on a needs analysis.
    With a guaranteed level of funding that addresses the SAR group’s actual responses, the group can spend more time training and planning for safe and effective operations.
  • Central coordinating agency that evaluates all grant applications for merit.
    A central agency would examine applications in the provincial context, and prioritize funds for where there is the most need. This would improve safety for SAR members and for lost or injured people. Public safety should not be political.
  • Collaboration with government to direct resources where they are needed.
    EMBC should conduct continuous review of operations to address changing needs, and suggest improvements. EMBC should be granted authority to direct funds to address perceived gaps in coverage, and to guide the development of response capability to address needs.
  • Cross training between groups to direct resources during peak demands.
    Peak demands and rare occurrences are often used by SAR groups as justifications for large expenditures when those are anomalies, and can be handled by resources from adjoining SAR groups. Cross training to prepare for these operational needs would address readiness and response times.

Later this week I will present some ideas for how to achieve this level of funding, and some ideas from SAR groups elsewhere in the world.

7 Comments on “On a sustainable funding model for SAR in BC

  1. Mike you have my agreement in principle with the points you have made in this blog entry. I have two points to discuss: costs and determining needs.

    I do want your readers to understand that while the SAR team bears no costs (as you have clearly stated) for conducting a search and/or rescue, individual SAR members certainly do. Any time a SAR member leaves work to attend a call their pay is forfeited unless their employer has agreed to continue paying during the absence. Many SAR members can not afford to lose out on their wages and so are not available to respond to calls during regular working hours.

    Determining needs for personnel, resources and funding province-wide is a mammoth task (probably why it has not yet been done) and would need regular revision. Until such time as a fair, comprehensive and transparent needs analysis is complete, there is no way grant applications should be vetted by a central coordinating agency.

    Keep writing!

    • Excellent points Doug.

      Regarding what is fair to volunteers and some way to recognize (not “incentivise” since we turn away hundreds of people every year), I support motions within the federal government to allow SAR members and indeed every volunteer in Canada a tax credit in recognition of the economic benefits their time has for Canadian society. Although Volunteer Canada is not necessarily in favour of these motions, they do have some resources at their web site here: http://volunteer.ca/content/tax-incentives-volunteering and you can read (yawn) some of the most recent proposed legislation on the topic here: Private Member’s bill C-399 http://parl.gc.ca/HousePublications/Publication.aspx?Language=E&Mode=1&DocId=5391846

      Regarding the need for fair and equitable funding model; you’re entirely correct that determining the needs for the entire province in one fell swoop would not be easy, or even possible in the short term. However, grant applications currently undergo zero analysis by knowledgeable reviewers, and in the most recent round of applications most were summarily dismissed, most believe, through lack of familiarity with the role of Search and Rescue.

      Some steps have to be take to make the process more fair.

      One step, which I learned was proposed over a DECADE ago was that each team put together a business plan detailing the group’s operational needs and the amount of funding necessary to achieve those goals. This at the very least would give a picture of how much grant money is required to run the program, regardless of where the money comes from. A simple step like this would start the process. Having a central agency take the issue up with government could easily increase the amount of funding, and make it more equitable, is short but decisive steps.

      Many people more experienced than I have attempted to address this issue and I have to recognized that many of the ideas I am putting forward are those I’ve learned from others. I would give them credit but I don’t want to drop names publicly when they might prefer to remain anonymous.

  2. I have commented before in the disparity in SAR funding blog that in my view the central agency already exists and is called BCSARA. I appreciate BCSARA is again run by volunteers so I am not saying just heap more work on the directors who are typically also volunteers with SAR groups and already busy enough; they may need to look at employing somebody to manage day to day the funding requests from individual SAR groups and overall allocation and the managing of this but BCSARA should have a good handle of what each SAR group in a directors’ region capabilities are and are ideally positioned to oversee funds allocations. I own and develop an internet service to assist in managing rescue organisations and for a number of years now I have and continue to offer to both BCSARA and EMBC to work with them to expand the existing service or create a new service to make centralised group administration easier to manage at little or no cost to them.

    Not knowing exactly how the gaming commission decide how much of their overall funds they will give to SAR I suspect they typically give a percentage of overall funds to SAR and I feel instead this should be handed off to BCSARA for distribution to the groups. BCSARA may then also have a larger pot to allocate to training across the province to provide more training opportunities to the 80+ groups as after all training is a primary factor in volunteer safety.

    Whilst more funds are always perferred I do believe that generally the funding is there to sustain the volunteer SAR groups but as Michael has already stated it could probably be better allocated as a whole to suit the needs of the majority of the groups year on year. I am a firm believer that more equipment in a group is not always the answer as it typically increases the groups year on year running costs with maintenance and ongoing training which needs to be factored in to the initial purchase prices.

    We also need to manage the expectations of those that we rescue both in response time and capability, having more equipment may set a level of expectation that a group cannot fulfill if the trained resources in that equipment are not readily available and I do not agree with paying members or external companies to be on standby “just in case” they may be needed. All the recent coverage of rescues in BC in the media have typically involved a helicopter and the public will start to expect to be flown out of every situation if we are not careful, perhaps calling on SAR for a free helicopter ride (after all we have had to recently stress as a result of circumstances beyond our control that we do not charge in BC for our services).

    I also think group rational may need to change accepting that they cannot be trained and equipped for every eventuality and may have to start to spread specialist tasks to regional based teams or surrounding SAR teams. The group I am a member of had the funds to set up a HETS team but we decided it was probably not sustainable based on the number of previous tasks that required HETS and as we also have a number of groups within one hours flying time surrounding us with the capability it made sense to not proceed with HETS for fear of future bankruptcy (a lot more went into the rational for this decision but hopefully you get the picture).

    I could go on, I have many views on this topic but they are beyond a comments section.

  3. Some more information for review:

    In 2011, Christy Clark commissioned an independent review of the Province’s Community Gaming Grant system which is the main funding source for most BC Search and Rescue teams.

    On P12 of their final report, they reviewer recommended

    “Community groups, such as BC Search and Rescue, provide essential, life-saving services throughout the province. It may be more appropriate for government to fund these organizations directly (for example, through Emergency Management BC) rather than through gaming grants.”


    On P 29 of the report, is the following quote:

    “If gaming funds are to be used to replace sustainable funding from general revenue for important public safety programs, then parts of it need to be managed as if it were sustainable funding and not a one-time grant that has to be re-justified each contribution year.”

    Changes were made to the Gaming grant program to allow for multi-year programs in the wake of this review, but the Government declined to take up the challenge to fund public safety directly.

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