Quadrennial SAR Review feedback

Quadrennial SAR Review feedback
Rescuing an Olympic Skier in 2010

Last month was the Quadrennial SAR Review, an initiative launched by the federal government as a result of a recent tragedy in Newfoundland where a young buy perished during a SAR incident. The forum ended up being closed to the media, but the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) did make a call for public input into the review. Specifically they requested comments regarding the following topics:

  • How technology can improve prevention and response?
  • How coordination of efforts can improve interoperability, capacity and coverage in responding to Canadians in distress?
  • How aligning search and rescue prevention efforts can reduce the frequency and severity of incidents?
  • How the National Search and Rescue Program should be structured to achieve improved integration and alignment?

The following is my submission to the Quadrennial SAR review process which I have decided to make public here on my web site.

RE: Quadrennial SAR Review, request for public input

Regarding the request for public input on the Quadrennial SAR review, my comments are informed by my position as a SAR volunteer with Coquitlam Search and Rescue in BC since January 2000. In that time I have been trained as a mountain and avalanche rescue specialist, long line and helicopter rescue, and a SAR manager. The feedback presented here does not represent my SAR group, and are my opinions only.

Executive Summary

My input to the SAR review consists of the following points:

  • The only way to understand the scope of SAR in Canada is to measure the number, type and severity of SAR incidents nationally, and this is not being done.
  • As a side effect of gathering SAR incident information, a database of SAR and emergency response agencies and their capabilities can be built on the same system.
  • Municipal, provincial and federal agencies can make use of the information gathered (above) to make better funding decisions, allocating resources where they are needed.
  • Analyzing information so gathered can guide Emergency Response agencies on where coordination of resources and responses are necessary, tuning the response capabilities of various resources to fit the needs of the region.
  • Such a database needs ongoing support and curation in order to remain relevant as information quickly becomes out of date. Incentives must be given and proper funding in place for continued operation.
  • Interoperability must be tested through drills, exercises and scenarios between various SAR responders.

Measuring the problem

In order to better understand the scope of Search and Rescue in Canada, it is imperative that we be able to measure the problem. As a member of the SAR community in BC, where we respond to over 1200 ground SAR incidents per year, my first observation is the almost total lack of information on the type and severity of SAR incidents available to SAR groups in our province, which I can only surmise is similar for the rest of Canada.

While an attempt has been made to gather these statistics in BC (and a similar project is underway federally), it is all but useless since data is submitted on a voluntary basis, is not searchable, has no built in analytic ability, and is limited in many other ways. The money spent on this project was not enough to achieve the goals, and the process for submitting the data did not encourage teams to participate.

Without accurate measurement of not only the type of incidents, but the size of the response, type of resources necessary to effect the rescue, and the outcomes, it is all but impossible to understand how improvements can be made.

Measuring and tracking incidents will allow provincial and federal agencies to understand the value of the volunteers and professionals who respond to them. It will also allow granting and funding agencies to evaluate where financial assistance can be distributed to where there is the most need.

Allocating resources where needed

Once a proper method of tracking incidents by number, type and severity is created, it becomes possible to make intelligent decisions on where resources are necessary.

The current method of funding SAR operations in BC relies on individual teams (non profit societies) doing their own grant writing and fund raising. This results in a disparity between the need for resources in a certain area, and the amount of funds raised available as fund raising effort often follows a larger population base.

The fact is that SAR groups themselves lack the tools and training to properly analyze their own needs in their response areas. Without oversight and some form of coordination, “rich” teams buy equipment and training for responses that are unlikely, while “poor” teams don’t get the resources to carry out the tasks they actually respond to.

Extending this concept to the national level, the NIF grant allocates funds nationally based on the SAR NIF merit board’s decisions. With accurate information on number and type of SAR incidents, the Merit Board would have the opportunity to allocate grants to where there is a definite need.

Coordination of Resources

A database that tracks SAR incidents will of necessity also track the groups that respond to them. The existence of an entry in this incident tracking database gives an opportunity to also record the capabilities and resources, and response areas of each team. This information could be used to coordinate responses for large incidents or to move resources throughout the country when necessary.

Planning and Interoperability Exercises

One thing that responding to various sorts of interagency emergencies has taught me is that they are often the most chaotic and confusing types of responses because of inter-agency communications issues. On a recent rescue here in BC we had six agencies respond to a single injured but stable patient, tying up resources for several hours.

One simple technological improvement comes to mind for improving multi-agency responses and that is to fast-track the inter agency operations channel, or “combined events” channel. There is very confusing information about the status of this effort, including that ground SAR units are not considered to be Search and Rescue for the purposes of this channel.

Other actions that can be taken to improve multi agency responses is regular drills, exercises and scenarios that test the responses of the agencies involved. Without training and testing, the confusion of an actual response is made worse by unfamiliarity and communications issues. Simple efforts and funding for this kind of training can go a long way toward integrated responses between professional and volunteer responders.


My only comment in summary is that the time frame given to contribute comments to the review was not enough for an individual or an agency to generate any kind of comprehensive report. The comments herein were only the most pressing and coherent I could generate given the limitations.

Thank you for the opportunity to contribute.


Michael Coyle
Squamish, BC

7 Comments on “Quadrennial SAR Review feedback

  1. Michael,

    Thank you for all the very informative posts that you write. I’ve learned a lot in the short time I’ve been following your blog. I commend you for putting so much time and effort into transferring thoughts to paper and trying to influence and make a difference based on your experience and that of your team. It’s very much appreciated.

    • Shelley, thank you so much for the kind words. I have an obsessive streak and this is how it manifests. I certainly hope it makes a difference, but feedback from people like you make it worthwhile.

  2. Hey there, Michael – this is Andrea from Raven Rescue. We’re putting together a piece for our March newsletter reviewing the Quadrennial SAR Review, since its been just over a year since it was released. With the fundamental understanding that these initiatives move at glacial speed, in the last year have you noticed any changes or movements towards change, based on the recommendations within the Review?

    • Hi Andrea.

      There have been some tangible changes, but it’s hard to tell if these are in fulfilment of the review or not.

      The recommendations of the review were as follows:

      Standardized reporting and improved data management across the NSP must continue to be pursued without delay, as it would serve to inform future decision-making, and would set the SAR community on the proper footing for successful reviews in the years to come.

      As a fundamental and invaluable pillar of the National Search and Rescue Program, prevention efforts should be further emphasized and more effectively coordinated across the NSP partnership.

      Given the substantial role played by volunteer organizations in the delivery of SAR excellence in Canada, this cadre of dedicated Canadians must be supported and sustained by the NSP partners.

      To ensure ongoing “seamless” SAR delivery for Canadians, all NSP partners must continue to improve coordination, collaboration and interoperability across the system, including better leveraging existing mechanisms.

      The National Search and Rescue Secretariat should further leverage the SAR New Initiatives Fund and the annual SARscene conference (a national event involving all NSP partners and volunteers) to support immediate measures, and – more importantly – to advance the national dialogue on these issues with the aim of identifying system-wide, sustainable solutions for the future.

      There has been movement on the standardized reporting here in BC – BCSARA and EMBC put forward a New Initiatives (also a recommendation) grant to create (or purchase) a reporting system that would cover all SAR teams in BC, integrating Search and Rescue incident reporting with safety and equipment management. This should also replace the current task reimbursement system. I imagine that given the QSR recommendations that the NIF committee will look favourably on this proposal. We shall see.

      The “prevention” arm is AdventureSmart and I have no idea if funding has been increased or decreased.

      “Support and sustain” volunteer organizations is a very broad and non specific recommendation, as are the rest of the recommendations.

      The final recommendation was to continue SARScene – which I think is one of the most valuable and tangible recommendation. SARScene is where we get together and do most of the work of the other recommendations — interoperability, standardization, etc.

      SARVAC is terrible at promoting their good work, they tend to just do things behind the scene. If you could get a hold of a SARVAV board member anmd pump them for information I’d be happy yo hear what they are doing on this topic.

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