Search and Rescue in B.C.: An Interview with Michael Coyle

If you ever read the local newspapers, you’ll notice almost every week there is an article or two regarding a Search and Rescue (SAR) team needing to rescue a lost or injured person in the backcountry. What you may not realize is that these articles only represent a fraction of the callouts that occur every week by our local SAR teams. You also may not realize that there are over 80 SAR teams in our province. They provide an invaluable service to our communities, and I wanted to share some of the basic information regarding SAR and how it operates in our province. Also, Michael Coyle, SAR Manager with Coquitlam Search and Rescue was kind enough to answer some questions in an interview which can be found below.

“In any given year Search and Rescue groups in BC respond to nearly 1.000 incidents involving over 1300 missing (lost) or injured persons. Our 2500 unpaid professional volunteers, located in more than 80 BC communities are available day or night. Together these men and women donate over 100,000 hours of their time on callouts annually, and an astounding 95% subjects were found or rescued within the first 24 hours of a volunteer SAR group being activated”. [source]. (Be sure to check out the resources at the bottom of the post to find out how you can see a weekly report of every callout in B.C.)

Most callouts are initiated by the RCMP or local police. If a person is reported to be lost or injured in the backcountry, the police will phone the SAR team which covers the particular area the subject is in. Once a callout has been placed, the SAR manager of the team responding will page all their team members. These team members are volunteers and are on call 24/7, 365 days a year. Team members will phone in their availability to the SAR Manager. If they are needed for the search, team members will meet up for a briefing prior to launching the search. While it varies by SAR team, most teams require that team members maintain at least a 50% response rate to callouts, or they will be asked to leave the team.

Once organized and all details are gathered, the search is then conducted. If helicopters are needed, they will be contracted out. The search is conducted and hopefully ended with successfully finding the subject and getting them to safety. Sometimes SAR teams with work together when warranted.

Aside from the Ground SAR teams, there are Marine and Air SAR teams. There is “the Canadian Coast Guard who are responsible for all ocean rescue, and there is the Royal Canadian Air Force who are responsible for all Air rescue. Our local Military SAR squadron is the 442 Transport and Rescue Squadron based out of Comox, BC.” [Source]

Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue alone has over 1,200 volunteers and handles about 800 call per year.

Regarding funding, the team members will hold fundraisers and also depend on donations for the acquisition and maintenance of gear, and also to support the costs of training team members. All costs incurred while on a callout (including damaged gear, fuel, helicopters) are reimbursed by the province.


Coquitlam SAR at work

Interview with Michael Coyle

Michael Coyle, SAR Manager at Coquitlam Search and Rescue was kind enough to answer some questions for me. Michael has a great blog called Oplopanax Horridus which you should check out. Michael posts frequently and in great detail about many things related to search and rescue.

Outdoor Vancouver: What are the most common fallacies people have about SAR?

Michael Coyle: The first fallacy is that we are paid, and that being rescued cost money. This seems to come about because the media constantly refers to us as “On Duty,” or “SAR Officials” and sometimes “SAR workers.” SAR in BC is carried out by volunteers, and nobody is charged for rescue.

The second fallacy, also largely due to mainstream media, is that there is only one SAR team in the province — it seems that anything that happens within 15km of Vancouver gets reported, and almost nothing outside the lower mainland makes the papers on the evening news. There are exceptions of course. If you read the PEP incident summaries you can see that there are 85 SAR teams in the province, and over 4500 registered SAR volunteers.

OV: How much of your time is dedicated to SAR in the average week or month? 

MC: I spent a year tracking all of the time I spent working on SAR related things, from training, courses, and actual SAR tasks. I did approximately 200 hours for 2010-2011 and this was not a busy year for the team, and I didn’t take any courses. About 4 hours a week, on average.  A SAR member could have easily exceeded 400 hours that year (there were 500 hours of combined tasks, training, and courses that I could track). This didn’t include time spent writing rescue response plans, doing paperwork, researching new gear purchases, fundraising, public education, or any of the executive or committee work.

OV: What does training entail?

MC: This varies from team to team, but the teams in the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley and Sea-to-Sky areas train once a week for 2-3 hours, and often once a month on a weekend day. That’s the self-organized training. Then there are courses in swiftwater rescue, rope rescue, tracking, mountain rescue, avalanche rescue, and first aid. These can easily take another 2-3 3 day weekends a year.

OV: What is the craziest callout you ever had or the scariest moment you’ve had?

MC: There’s lots of “crazy” moments, and lots of scary ones too. Here’s two.

One time I was on a task near Alexis Creek. Near the end of the day we were sent with the helicopter to find a place to stay; someone had made a reservation at a motel. The pilot had to fly down the highway, while we assisted by reading road signs to find the place. As we hovered over a likely place, someone turned on their lights and came on into the back yard, and thinking that this was the motel we landed. We found out that it was a B&B, and the motel was next door. The owner kindly let us park the helo there overnight while we stayed in the motel.

The scariest moment I ever had was wading in Burnaby Lake wearing a drysuit. The lake is filled with rotting vegetable matter, and we got stuck frequently, with methane was bubbling up all around us. We were searching for a body and the thought of finding it floating in the muck amid the lillypads was gruesome. A very memorable moment.

Thanks Michael!

Further Search and Rescue Resources

PEP: “The Provincial Emergency Program (PEP) is a division of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Emergency Management BC. PEP works with local governments year round, providing training and support before, during and after emergencies.”

The thing you want to check out on the PEP website are the incidents reports. They break out every reported callout on a weekly basis categorized by air, land, or inland water. You can search by region, and there is also a brief summary of each callout. Very intersting to look at and will give you a good idea of the number of callouts that take place in B.C.

BC SARA: “The British Columbia Search and Rescue Association enhances the provision of ground search and rescue services in the province by bringing together all SAR professionals in BC to discuss and resolve issues, by accessing funding for training, providing occupational health and safety support, educating the general public on outdoor safety and acting as a common link to information and resources for Search and Rescue practitioners’ across British Columbia.”

– Also, there is a great TV showed Callout carried on the Knowledge Network and a few other stations. It follows some B.C. SAR teams as they train and respond to callouts. It is a very well done show, and I find does a good job of educating you on just what our SAR teams do.

Lastly, links to the SAR teams in Southwest B.C.:

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