Unsung Volunteers - Search and Rescue Under Threat

Andrew Zwicker
By Andrew Zwicker
June 18th, 2009

Ahh… Super Natural British Columbia, the “Best place on earth,” as we’ve been branded. ’Come play in our mountains, explore our beautiful forests, oceans, lakes and endless beautiful back country’ we say to the world. We publicize our province with sweeping heli-cam shots of wild open mountain spaces; we show folks having the time of their lives camping in the wilderness smiling as they catch a glimpse of a grizzly; we cue the emotional music for shots of Mounties, flowery meadows, glaciers and everything else that makes up “The best place on earth.” Mother Nature’s draw is particularly strong here in British Columbia and many people across our province directly or indirectly make their living off the folks who come here to experience our wild lands.

The images that don’t make it into the marketing material BC sends out is that of people who get into trouble amid those beautiful scenes—either by accident or through lack of preparation. You don’t see the vacationers who ski into the back country without proper gear and become stranded for a week. The marketers’ message is one of BC being a safe and beautiful place to come and explore. The driving force behind that often being the case are the members of our community that make up BC’s search and rescue teams across the province.

Entirely volunteer, it is impressive that such an essential service , and one which plays a large role in the adventure tourism economy, operates without major funding from the government.

In recent years frustrations have been growing between search and rescue groups and the provinces as feelings of neglect and inadequate protection from the government for the service they provide voluntarily have steadily building. Case in point: a lawsuit filed recently by Gilles Blackburn of Quebec after he and his wife skied out of bounds from Kicking Horse Mountain Resort. Blackburn’s wife died of hypothermia seven days after getting lost. Blackburn was rescued two days later.

Launched on May 8th, the lawsuit claims that Blackburn suffered serious physical and psychological injuries because the Golden and District Search and Rescue Association, as well as the RCMP and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, failed to initiate a ground search when SOS signals stamped in the snow were reported by a local helicopter company.

“It’s good this finally did come to a head but it’s too bad it took a situation like this for it to come up,” noted Jerry Bella, search manager and director of the Rossland Search and Rescue branch. “For years we’ve been, we feel, provided with inadequate and substandard legal liability and WCB coverage for our members and directors. It’s just time. If they want to have paid professionals doing it, then fine, but we’re all unpaid volunteers and we need to be protected.”

The Golden issue is believed to be the first time that a Search and Rescue society has been sued in BC. Now that it appears that societies can be sued, the question arises: are the 80 search and rescue groups around the provinces covered by third party liability insurance? Currently the province will pay liability for searchers but only approximately half of BC’s search and rescue societies currently have third party liability insurance.

This past weekend, as a message to the provincial government, the Golden, Kimberly and Fernie Search and Rescue societies withdrew their services. Fernie’s director resigned, while in Golden, the society withdrew all of its equipment but searchers are still able to volunteer on their own. Kimberly, upon confirming that they do indeed have adequate insurance, resumed services on Monday.

Rossland Search and Rescue is not currently considering withdrawing its services as Rossland does have third party liability insurance coverage. However, with the current policy expiring at the end of August, the organization feels it is imperative that the government act quickly to rectify the current issues.

In a related incident in Cranbrook, a claim by a search and rescue worker was not approved by the provincial emergency program. That has made search and rescue societies’ operations significantly more difficult as it brings into question whether or not members will be covered if they get hurt while on a search.

“Rossland fully supports and endorses Golden’s withdrawal,” explained Bella. “We think the government has got to act and they have got to act quickly in dealing with this issue, the director’s liability issue and the WCB issue. I think if [the S&R groups] hadn’t done something like that, the government would have kept dragging its feet. However, in saying that–we have been insured in Rossland from day one. We are fully covered to the maximum amount. We disagree that we have to raise that money ourselves but it’s one of those things you have to do. At this point we’re going to keep our services available to Rossland and the surrounding area because we feel that the message has been made to the government and if they start acting in good faith we’ll maintain our services. Our insurance expires at the end of August so we’re comfortable in saying that we’ll be able to continue on serving the area.”

The Solicitor General will be meeting next week with members of Search and Rescue societies to discuss solutions. Many S&R societies around the province who are not covered with third party liability will have difficult continuing operations if the issue is not resolved. Vernon S&R has notified the province that if significant progress is not made, they will not be able to offer their services beyond the next sixty days.

The various S&Rs would like to see the implementation of one insurance program for the whole province. Bella would like this insurance program to be “free of charge, of course. The government is saying “Hey come to supernatural BC and enjoy our outdoors,” and they make people feel like they are going to be taken care of. That’s a way they are attracting people to BC which should, you would think, cover the cost of the liability insurance. And they could probably get a better rate than us if they got one policy for everyone in the province.”

Along with one insurance program for all groups, Search and Rescue also wants clarification on WCB coverage and a stronger, more adequate program for its members. Until one or both of those goals are met in some fashion it will be difficult for many Search and Rescue groups around the province to continue providing the service they do.

Ironically, Mr. Blackburn who is suing (among others) the Search and Rescue Society in Golden for not doing enough to help him and his wife may end up making it more difficult for search and rescue groups to help people in the future.

The nature of the search and rescue game may well be changed by the current lawsuit. As search and rescue groups are not first responders, they must be called in by either the RCMP, Fire Department of the coroner. If the precedent is set that people can be sued for failing to call in Search and Rescue, then it opens up the possibility that searches will be called out for every incident where they may not always be needed. For a volunteer force, that puts additional strain on the capabilities of the group.

Rossland Search and Rescue’s membership fluctuates between forty and fifty, around half of whom are generally available at any given time. According to Bella, they respond to anywhere from six to seven incidents in a slow year to as many as eighteen to twenty in a busy one. Rossland also has the luxury of a mobile command unit that is among the best in the province. The Rossland society regularly makes use of the command unit for other groups in the area. That, along with an agreement between societies to help–at no charge–other groups in the province, keeps the volunteer force busy.

With lots of mountainous and hazardous terrain around Rossland, it’s not hard to see the importance of a good search and rescue group to the local community.

“At the end of the day I think search and rescue societies are at the bottom of the list of who gets sued if in this kind of case. Having said that, the members are still there and they are exposing themselves to catch a law suit, and they are taking on that risk voluntarily to help save people’s lives,” concluded Bella.

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