Calls for overhaul of B.C.’s Search and Rescue system

Search and Rescue crews have saved countless lives across the province, whether that’s rescuing lost or injured hikers or digging out avalanche victims.

Now there is a call from a high profile member of the North Shore Rescue Team to reform the way things are done — because he says the current system is ineffective.

Every year, volunteer search crews respond to more than 1300 emergencies. On the North Shore, more than half the calls involve helicopter rescues.

But during the dry summer months, those helicopters are often tied up.

“Fire season brings a very difficult dynamic, where we are in a holding pattern until Coastal Fire can release a helicopter,” says Tim Jones of North Shore Search and Rescue.

“They do their best for the major emergencies but there are times when those helicopters simply aren’t available when we need them because they’re out there fighting fires.”

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Jones is calling for the province to pay for dedicated aircraft so that search and rescue crews aren’t left scrambling.

He also says better communication is needed.

Search and Rescue crews across the province don’t have an integrated radio communication network.

Setting one up would likely cost more than $20 million, but Jones says it’s critical to the crews’ safety.

“When you have situations with marginal weather, need to evacuate quickly, or they find the subject, you want to be able to get out.  Satellite phones don’t replace radio communications,” says Jones.

The government says they are open to looking at changes.

“It’s something that we’re committed to discussing, and taking a look at what’s realistic and what isn’t,” says Ian Cunnings of Emergency Management BC.

BC has more than 80 Search and Rescue crews, which receive a total of about $7 million from the province, but have to apply for annual grants and donations to keep operating.

After the death of a search and rescue volunteer in 2011, an inquest recommended a review of the way groups are funded.

Jones wants to see some volunteers paid, so they don’t leave to find work elsewhere.

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Others are calling for an overhaul of the entire system.

“I do believe that Search and Rescue needs a long-term funding model, so they can plan long-term, release them from burden of fundraising,” says Mike Coyle of Coquitlam Search and Rescue.

According to B.C., almost all calls to Search and Rescue crews last year were resolved within 24 hours.

Volunteers say there is still room for improvement, but they need the province’s help.