British Columbia is the most mountainous region of Canada, and contains a variety of terrain that presents particular challenges to search and rescue teams. It is also Canada’s third largest province at 944,735 square kilometres, and is larger than every US state except Alaska. In addition to basic search techniques every SAR volunteer receives during a 70 hour “Ground Search and Rescue” course with a standard curriculum, SAR groups have members trained as Team Leaders and Search Management to plan and direct operations. Teams in BC may also train in specific technical rescue techniques appropriate for the areas they cover. Rescue techniques used in BC are presented below.
- Rope Rescue
- Swift Water Rescue
- Flat Water/Marine Rescue
- Flat Ice Rescue
- Avalanche Operations
- SAR Dogs
- Helicopter Rescue
- Long Line
- Mountain Rescue
- Road Rescue
- Cave Rescue
- Backcountry Access
- Rescue Communications
- Wilderness Medicine
- Mounted SAR
- SAR Management
Rope rescue refers to any rescue where a rope is required to safely move the subject, the rescuer, or both. This may be on terrain where the slope is over a certain angle, on vertical terrain, or in areas where a slip or fall will have drastic consequences. Rope rescue courses in BC teach a top-down, dual rope “static” system that is similar to many other regions in the world. Training standards are high, with certifications for team member, team leader and instructor.
Swift Water Rescue
Swift water is any moving water that has the possibility of knocking someone off their feet. BC is a province full of rivers and streams and has a significant flooding event every year with ice melt (see the BC River forecast centre for more information on this). There is a significant amount of exposure to swift water in the form of fishing, boating, kayaking and white water rafting in BC and there is a need for rescue services both for members of the public, and to keep SAR volunteers safe while searching river banks.
Swift Water Rescue training is very involved, with some courses lasting several days and covering aspects such as boat operations, shoreline rescue, disentanglement, swimming and “line across” techniques. Certifications from operations to instructor are offered.
Flat Water/Marine Rescue
Aside from the rivers, BC has a huge number of lakes and reservoirs, Kootenay Lake, Shushwap Lake, Okanagan Lake, Harrison Lake and Pitt Lake are just a few, very large and challenging lakes that are almost the size of inland seas. Because the mandate of ground SAR is to cover land and inland waterways, many SAR groups adjacent to lakes and rivers develop significant marine response capabilities.
Specialize equipment for marine response can range from simple rigid hull inflatable boats (RIBs), jet skis, full size aluminium rescue boats, and in some areas, hovercraft. Groups that have this capability invest significant time and resources training and responding to marine rescues.
Flat Ice Rescue
Most of BC goes through a deep freeze every winter, with lakes and rivers freezing solid and various forms of recreating taking places on the frozen surfaces. Ice fishing, skating and snowmobile operations are common. When someone breaks through the ice, in many areas it is SAR members who respond and this specific and detailed rescue techniques are required.
Similar to ice rescue, most of BC has significant snow during the winter, and any operations on snow on slopes over a certain angle (steepness) involve the possibility of an avalanche. Training is required in BC for all operations in avalanche terrain regardless of the kind of rescue (avalanche or otherwise) being performed because SAR members have to travel through the avalanche hazard even if they are looking for a lost person.
Basic Avalanche rescue training involves terrain analysis, safe travel techniques, and rescue skills with avalanche transceivers, probes and shoves. Advanced training includes managing teams of people for a rescue, and team leadership. Even more advanced training is offered through the Canadian Avalanche Association’s specialized Avalanche Operations courses.
Tracking is a very old and very useful technique for finding a lost person. It can vastly reduce the number of people and the amount of time it takes to find a lost person, but it is a skill that takes training and practise. SAR tracking certification and training are managed by the BC Tracking Association, a BCSARA member group. Various levels of certification are offered from Tracker 1, 2 and 3 to Sign Cutter.
Search and Rescue dogs are used in BC. SAR Dogs have “profiles”, or training certifications such as air scenting, ground scenting, and avalanche rescue. Tracking dog and handler certification and training is coordinated through the BC Search Dog Association (BCSDA), while avalanche rescue dogs and handlers are certified under the Canadian Avalanche Rescue Dog Association (CARDA), both of which are BCSARA member groups.
The terrain in BC is so difficult, that most wilderness searches include a helicopter component. All SAR members in BC receive training in the form of familiarization and orientation to helicopter operations, many take additional training in hover exit, which is extremely useful because although helicopters are very maneuverable there are many places where SAR members need to go that a helicopter can’t land.
Many teams also train members in sling loading techniques, and advanced patient transport. The use of helicopters in many rescues has resulted in numerous lives saved because of the speed they can bring the patient to medical care.
Helicopter External transport System (HETS)
HETS, sometimes called HFRS, CDFL, “short haul” or “long line” is a type of helicopter rescue where a one or more rescuers and subjects are slung on a line attached to a helicopter. This technique, pioneered in Canada by Parks staff in Banff National Park in the 60’s. Originally, the rescuers wore climbing harnesses and were simply attached to the line using regular climbing equipment. Through the work of various BC SAR teams, notably North Shore Rescue in North Vancouver, this technique evolved into a Transport Canada regulated and certified rescue system used by many teams in BC.
HETS allows SAR teams to move people and equipment into normally inaccessible terrain. This technique is used to lower rescuers into areas where tall trees prevent the helicopter from landing or allowing SAR members to hover exit. It is also used to rescue people in high, glaciated and mountainous terrain. Because it speeds up access, delivers first aid, and transports subjects to definitive medical treatment faster, HETS is responsible for many successful rescues since it’s adoption by EMBC as a validated rescue technique.
As noted above, BC is the most mountainous region of Canada. It is cut by mountain ranges, most of them glaciated and covered in snow. People are drawn to BC from all over the world to recreate in these mountains, doing sports such as mountaineering, mountain biking, climbing, backcountry skiing, snowmobiling, and heli-skiing. Rescues in the mountains require specialized training that starts with standardizing access techniques SAR members are trained in mountain travel techniques such as glacier travel, climbing steep snow and ice, rock climbing in 4th class terrain and above, and short rope skills.
Once basic mountain travel skills are learned, self rescue skills are taught; these are techniques used to rescue other team members travelling in the hazardous terrain. Crevasse rescue, and companion rope rescue are part of these skills. Finally, organized mountain rescue techniques are taught, as well as advanced medical training in spinal immobilization, o2 therapy, subject packaging and transport, and the treatment of hypothermia and cold injuries.
BC’s mountain rescue training program was the result of many years of research and development in conjunction with the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides (ACM), the Justice Institute of BC (JIBC) and many subject matter experts in helicopter rescue, wilderness and emergency medicine and mountain rescue.
Road Rescue/Auto Extrication
SAR groups in BC respond to find lost persons and rescue those in need in urban, rural, and backcountry areas of the province. While many fire departments respond to vehicles accidents along roadways with specialized equipment and training, in some areas SAR Groups have developed Road Rescue teams to fill gaps in coverage and respond to highway accident scenes. The weather and driving conditions in BC can be extreme at any time of the year, and groups that provide this much needed capability can be very busy.
Road Rescue is a set of specialized rescue techniques using tools to extricate patients from auto crashes, search highway embankments and cliffs, and perform first aid in crash victims. Some groups in BC perform more highway rescues than wilderness rescues.
As if the risks and challenges of the mountains, rivers and lakes weren’t enough, caving presents a completely different set of challenges. These require a specialized and rare set of skills. In conjunction with the Canadian caving community, BC Cave Rescue was formed to provide a province wide resource for cave rescue responses. Not really a team so much as an association that provides training and guidance on rescue techniques, and list of people throughout the province who are considered certified to lead a cave rescue.
Accessing the backcountry in BC almost always involves driving on logging roads; gravel improved access roads developed for mining, logging or other resource extraction. Popular wilderness recreation areas are accessed using these roads, which are often deactivated and no longer maintained. Accidents can happen on these roads when recreational users exceed their own or their vehicle’s ability, or an accident in the backcountry might require teams to drive roads like this to access the subject.
SAR Groups develop resources for accessing these roads depending on call volumes and what area of the province the are in. Four wheel drive rescue vehicles of various sorts are used, from “side by side” 4x4s, “quads”, multi-wheel all terrain vehicles such as the Argo, or standard 4×4 road-ready trucks. In the winter, many teams used snowmobiles and other tracked vehicles to access the same areas.
The various regions of BC have one thing in common; vary large, rugged and often remote terrain. Along with the access issues detailed above, SAR groups have the problem of communicating with field teams while they are on a task. Communications networks of various sorts are essential for the safe execution of a rescue. Groups throughout BC have invested enormous time and resources developing radio, cellular, internet and satellite-based communications networks to support safe search and rescue operations in BC. Examples of SAR communications include amateur HAM operators becoming part of SAR groups, agreements between SAR groups and other emergency communications stakeholders the SAR association and EMBC working together with the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC), and SAR working together with other emergency responders such as Fire Rescue, RCMP, police and marine units.
When an accident in the backcountry results in an injury, a medical response is necessary. Wilderness medicine, and wilderness first aid tools and training are required to stabilize a subject who is far from definitive medical care. SAR groups take on medical training so their members can treat and transport subjects to the hospital. Many groups benefit from the volunteer hours of members who are guides, first aid attendants, paramedics, emergency physicians, or medical doctors in their regular lives, and all SAR teams invest time and resources in training and specialized medical treatment and transportation equipment.
Some of this may include stretchers, backboard and other spinal or limb immobilization devices, Automatic External Defibrillators (AED), Pulse Oximeters, blood pressure measurement devices (sphygmomanometer), Oxygen Therapy, intravenous therapy, and standard first aid equipment. Backcountry accidents can be especially critical due to the time it can take to access the scene and stabilize the subject, and SAR groups are especially careful to train and equip for these eventualities.
Search and Rescue is often pictured as valiant searchers flying in helicopters, driving in 4×4 vehicles, or rappelling off mountain sides, but in some parts of BC, riding a horse is the best way to cover terrain, and search from a high vantage point.
Mounted SAR is a recognized search and rescue mode in BC, with EMBC reimbursing mounted members at a rate similar to a 4×4 vehicle.
With all of these rescue techniques, there has to be some organization behind it all, and that is the role of the SAR Manager. Far from being paid, these individuals are experienced searchers who had risen through the ranks to become trained incident commanders, proficient in understanding maps, search theory, and the tactics and strategies for find all manner of missing persons.
SAR Managers in BC take specialized courses in the Incident Command System (ICS), and working side by side with the RCMP and police, BC Coroner’s service, and other emergency responders, are responsible for the safety of their respective search groups. Some searches in BC can last for days and involve thousands of square kilometres of wilderness, and these highly trained volunteers run those searches.