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Sunshine Coast SAR currently unable to perform high-angle rope rescues

When the volunteers’ rope team leader retired, the province had not provided the required training for at least four years

When the only rope rescue team leader on the Sunshine Coast Search and Rescue (SAR) team retired several weeks ago, there were volunteers ready to take over – but the training required to take on the role hasn’t been offered by Emergency Management BC for several years. 

Until a new rope team leader can be trained, the local ground SAR team cannot provide high-angle rope rescues. If one is needed, they’ll have to call another SAR team for mutual aid, and those volunteers will likely come in from Squamish or the North Shore, which happen to be some of the busiest teams in the province. 

“We're pretty fortunate to have those kinds of resources in our broader area, but [in] circumstances where they can't be used, or it's just impractical or not available for whatever reason, it will delay things quite a bit,” Sunshine Coast SAR manager Alec Tebbutt said. 

“It's a significant loss for the Coast, because there isn't really another organization on the Coast that can respond to those things.”

Rope rescues 

All ground SAR teams have the capability to perform low-angle rope rescues, Emergency Management BC (EMBC) said, which allow them to use ropes to help navigate team members, subjects and equipment through areas where the volunteers can still put their full weight on the ground. The ropes assist in areas where footing is unstable, such as on muddy or icy slopes. 

High-angle rope rescues are usually performed when someone is injured or falls in steep terrain, such as a steep slope or a cliff, and a team leader is required for those responses. The technique is also used for body recoveries.

“In those kinds of circumstances, we might be able to bring them up with enough people over a different route, but it actually increases the potential danger in some ways for our team, because it can make the rescue longer and more difficult, because you can't just hook them up to a rope system and use the rope system to help bring them out,” Tebbutt said.

“Incidents requiring a Rope Team Leader are rare,” an EMBC spokesperson told Coast Reporter via email. 

There may only be two or three rescues per year on the Coast that require a rope team leader, Tebbutt said. “It’s not a huge number by any stretch, but when you need it, you need it.” And response time is of the essence. 

Training required updates

In 2016, Emergency Management BC began updating the curriculum for technical rope training to switch over to a new system. In 2017 and 2018, workshops were offered to the volunteer team members and team leaders who were already trained, so they could transition to using the new systems of rope rescue. Formal training to new rope rescue team members began in 2018, EMBC said. 

“It's a safer system, but it requires different equipment and different procedures and different training,” Tebbutt said.

In August and September, the Sunshine Coast SAR team has two Tech 1 and Tech 2 courses for rope team members scheduled, which will bring instructors in from Chilliwack. The local team is hoping to open those courses up to other SAR units that need the training. The courses will cost Sunshine Coast SAR a minimum of $12,000, Tebbutt said. 

That training is a prerequisite for the rope team leader course. While this marks the first year EMBC and the Justine Institute of BC (JIBC) have allowed SAR teams to hire third-party companies to provide this training, only JIBC is permitted to teach the rope team leader course, Tebbutt said.

But the training for new team leaders has not been offered for several years, and there isn’t a course scheduled, Tebbutt said on April 20. “Until the province offers a rope team leader course, we can’t get one.” 

Emergency Management BC told Coast Reporter they anticipate offering the new rope team leader training by the end of 2022. 

Starting in 2022/2023, the province will also be providing an ongoing annual contribution of about $6 million to search and rescue groups in B.C., EMBC said, and almost $10 million in annual call-out funding to cover operational costs for responses and training deployments.

What about firefighters? 

While fire departments on the Sunshine Coast are also trained to provide low-to-steep rope rescues, there are limitations to where and what they can respond to, and they call on SAR for the more technical rescues including high-angle or vertical responses.

Jordan Pratt, the Sunshine Coast Regional District’s (SCRD) emergency management coordinator and deputy fire chief of the Gibsons and District Volunteer Fire Department, said the SCRD’s four fire departments are part of the Sunshine Coast Emergency Program (SCEP) and were informed by the Sunshine Coast SAR team about the change in their ability to respond.

“It really would be impractical” for firefighters to respond to some of the rope rescue calls, Pratt said. “We're not equipped to go hiking out into the wilderness.”

The Sechelt Fire Department’s members are trained to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1006 standard, which is appropriate for low-to-steep terrain within a “reasonable distance from main roads or trails,” Sechelt fire chief Trevor Pike said. But fire departments are restricted to their jurisdictions. 

Meanwhile, SAR volunteers are trained to EMBC standards. “They are a lot stricter courses – they use different gear, different techniques, lighter equipment – and they have the abilities to go farther into the woods and up into the hills and down into ravines and things like that, which we are not trained to do so,” Pike said.

Both Pike and Pratt said their departments will continue to call SAR for help as needed. SAR will connect with their partners, if needed.

“If we had a local team that could do it, the time delay wouldn't be there. Whereas if we have to call in other resources from other communities, there's that delay of gathering your manpower, your equipment, loading up onto an aircraft and then coming over to the site. So that's really the gap right now,” Pike said. “We're trying to work with local search and rescue crews to see if we can find some solutions as to what we can doas combined services to provide the best level of service to the people.” 

He added that it’s good for the public to be aware of the gap in service, and to be prepared.

“You might want to think twice about how far you're going out into the bush right now.”