As 2021 came to a close, it marked the second year local Search and Rescue (SAR) operations were affected by the pandemic.
On the Sunshine Coast, there are four teams of these volunteers: Sunshine Coast Search and Rescue, and the three Royal Canadian Marine SAR groups of Station 12 in Halfmoon Bay, Gibsons’ Station 14 and Pender Harbour’s Station 61.
The Sunshine Coast SAR team, covering ground and in-land water emergencies, 2021 saw callouts rise to 40, with five assists to other responding groups. This, Sunshine Coast SAR manager Alec Tebbutt said, represents a 67 per cent increase from the previous year’s 31 responses – and more than the 50 per cent increase across the BC Search and Rescue Association’s (BCSARA) teams. The number of calls for help to the ground SAR group has been increasing since pre-pandemic numbers that were usually between 20 and 24 calls.
Tebbutt noted that other nearby regions such as Squamish, the North Shore and Lions Bay have seen an enormous increase in calls since the beginning of the pandemic. The Sunshine Coast, he said, is a destination for the Lower Mainland.
But for the marine-based volunteers, calls for help dipped in 2020 as the pandemic began. Station 12 in Halfmoon Bay historically receives around 30 calls for assistance (37 in 2018, and 27 in 2019), but the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic saw only 16 callouts. In 2021, that number rose to 20 for the Halfmoon Bay team, which also covers Sechelt and Davis Bay.
Gibsons’ Station 14 saw a similar decrease in recent years, dropping by more than half their callouts from 21 in 2019 to 10 in 2020. Part of that could be attributed to the station’s decision to stand down for two months as the volunteers determined how to create safety protocol for the pandemic, as well as rising fuel costs and the public not travelling as much in 2020, station leader David Croal said. Then, in 2021, callouts for the team “crept back up” to 18.
Station 14 also saw a reduced membership, when some of the volunteers did not want to risk additional exposure to COVID-19 and had other responsibilities to tend to, Croal said. Meanwhile, they also saw a stronger presence from the Coast Guard.
In the Pender Harbour area, Station 61 has had a fairly steady call volume for the past four years, station leader Ray Des Harnais said. In 2021 they had eight missions, after 11 in 2020.
Ground SAR’s Tebbutt says the increasing numbers indicate two things for the Coast: there are more people getting out on the trails (likely because travel is limited by the pandemic) and there has been an increase in mental health issues. 2021 had more calls for despondent people and residents with Alzheimer’s, and some of those rescues became recovery missions. Those kinds of calls can be hard on the team, Tebbutt said, and 2022 priorities include increasing critical incident stress training. Two of the Sunshine Coast SAR members will be joining the provincial team for the critical incident stress management program.
Both Station 12 and 14 noted an increase in seemingly inexperienced boaters, liveaboards and an increase of vessels unfit for use.
“We can’t go anywhere on vacation, so they’ve purchased a boat, generally pretty inexpensively. And unfortunately, a cheap boat normally comes with a lot of problems,” Adam Hoult, the station leader for Station 12, said.
Last year, Station 12 also saw a fairly even split between calls for their vessel on Sechelt Inlet and their vessel currently based in Secret Cove, as well as an increase in calls to Davis Bay.
Hoult said this could be because of the amount of traffic down there and how visible the water is, as more people will call in. They’ve had a number of false alarms regarding kiteboarders who looked to passersby like they were struggling.
Hoult said they still regularly see boaters not wearing PFDs (personal floatation devices), even though having a PDF on board for every person is a Transport Canada requirement. During these darker days, he also recommends making sure navigation lights are working and your vessel is visible on the water, and making sure it’s in good condition if you haven’t taken it out recently.
Croal of Gibsons’ Station 14 said the team has come across multiple boaters using Google Maps for navigation on the water, but the app does not show the hazards under the surface. Croal also recommends using a waterproof phone case and knowing how to put out a proper distress signal (not through posting to Facebook).
During 2021, new equipment and training benefited the various teams.
The ground SAR group purchased a new vessel for operations on lakes, and have trained on the Zodiak, but have not had to use it for a task yet. Communication for their team has also improved with the use of an app that allows the team to track their members’ positions in real time while responding to a call for help. It can even be used to find the subject if they are able to respond by text on their phone (they do not need to have or download the app) and the app keeps a record of what areas have been searched already.
Tebbutt said his team now uses the app on every callout, and it is also used by other teams Sunshine Coast SAR often works with, including in Squamish, North Shore and Pemberton.
The Gibsons crew also improved their communication system and acquired some new navigation gear. The communication setup means crew members can hear each other without yelling, which Croal said has helped lower the level of anxiety on calls and allows them to operate in a calm manner. A newly donated vacuum immobilization stretcher – similar to a form-fitting sleeping bag – supports subjects in a more comfortable way than the usual stretcher board and its use is becoming more standardized, Croal said.
Station 12 received a grant from the Sunshine Coast Community Forest that allowed them to refit the Ken Moore with a new set of electronics and radar. The improvement allows the crew to stay in service 24 hours a day, and rely on the equipment in less-than-ideal weather conditions and at night.
Pender Harbour’s Station 16 also received a new radar and navigation electronics in 2021, replacing their outdated equipment and software that had been in use since 2013.
Now that 2021 is in the rearview mirror, Search and Rescue teams are preparing for what’s to come in 2022.
The ground SAR team will continue their training with new rope systems, as well as new swiftwater and avalanche rescue equipment.
One of the biggest priorities for the Halfmoon Bay station is relocating the Ken Moore from Secret Cove closer to Sechelt, where most of the crew resides, to cut down response time. They’ll also need new motors for both boats.
Gibsons will focus on getting a new boathouse and increasing recruits.
How you can help
Search and Rescue teams welcome interest from prospective volunteers year-round, and some are also looking for supportive volunteers to help with other tasks not in the field or on the water. Such work could include maintaining equipment, event planning, grant writing or becoming a board member, and interested people can contact the stations individually with their skill set.
Across the Coast’s four SAR teams, there are around 85 active members. Thirty-three volunteers make up the Sunshine Coast SAR team, and there are 18 active volunteers at Station 12, and 20 at Station 14. In January, Gibsons was interviewing around eight people as potential recruits. Three new recruits are being trained to join Pender Harbour’s crew of 14 active members, but all classroom training was suspended because of the Omicron variant.
The ground SAR team also includes a certified canine member, Echo, and another dog in training who can help sweep an area quickly. Tebbutt said the team is lucky to have a canine handler among them, since the RCMP’s K9 unit has to come from the Lower Mainland. The ground SAR team usually recruits in the fall and will train up to a dozen new members at a time.
Fundraising has also been affected by the pandemic. Croal said that many people believe that SAR teams are funded by the government, when in reality some of their operational costs are reimbursed and funding is provided by the Coast Guard, but they also continue to rely on private or corporate donations and grants. Each team is a non-profit and fundraises in their own area. Donations can be made online to their websites.
“We do rely on the kindness of the community and donations from people to make sure that we have what we need and can operate day to day,” Hoult said. “If people are looking to make a charitable donation to anybody, I think your SAR station is a good place to start. That’s what we could ask for from our community right now, is some financial aid.”
One of the biggest ways to help local search and rescue teams, Tebbutt said, is to be safe and prepared. He recommends following the “Three T’s” of trip planning, training and taking the 10 essentials: a flashlight, fire making kit, signalling device, extra food and water, extra clothing, navigational/communication devices, a first aid kit, emergency blanket/shelter, pocket knife and sun protection. More safety tips can be found at adventuresmart.ca.