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B.C. search and rescue calls spike during COVID-19 pandemic despite lack of international tourism

Last Updated Jul 23, 2020 at 11:48 pm PDT

FILE: North Shore Search and Rescue. (Courtesy: Facebook/ North Shore Search and Rescue)

SAR volunteers cannot distance during a rescue and are frequently exposed to risk

Masks make draining hot weather rescues even more difficult

Caches of PPE stores across province to help SAR teams through pandemic

VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — Injuries and accidents are often preventable, say British Columbia’s search and rescue teams, facing higher-than-normal call volumes during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite a lack of international outdoor tourism.

The extra pressure on volunteers who respond to backcountry emergencies resulted in a nearly 50 per cent increase in calls in the first two weeks of July.

There were 110 calls in the first two weeks of this month compared to about 75 in the same period last year.

“I have a feeling it’s just people wanting to get out,” says Dwight Yochim, senior manager of the BC Search and Rescue Association.

“We’ve been in kind of self-lockdown, people have been hiking around closer to home and now we’re slowly coming out of that, under Dr. Bonnie Henry’s guidance, and people are like ‘OK, let’s go!’”

Yochim says despite the cabin fever, it’s a good time to play conservatively in the outdoors, especially as B.C. detects an increase in new cases of COVID-19.

“We’re also on, I call it, a bit of a shoulder season. Believe it or not, there’s still snow in the mountains and so some individuals are out closer to the ocean and there’s no snow. Off they go and they get into the mountain tops and there’s snow and that causes trouble,” he says.

He’s asking outdoor lovers to keep it “rubber-side down,” close to home, and to stick to the trails, rivers and lakes you know well.

Masks add difficulty to challenging rescues

Many SAR volunteers are also first responders: firefighters, ambulance paramedics or otherwise, meaning they are already under increased pressure in their day jobs.

On top of that, it is impossible to physically distance when treating, packaging or transporting a victim, says Yochim.

“About the first month for us was an extremely steep learning curve. We had our health and safety committee working full-out to provide guidance to the teams for what to do,” he says.

Thankfully, through donations, fundraising and a lot of organizational work, BC SARA was able to create caches of personal protective equipment for teams across the province.

“As a team gets low they can call on those caches and restock,” he explains, adding the search for PPE has been a new and additional burden for volunteers.

Weekly skills training sessions were on hold at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic but have resumed in an adapted manner.

However, the summer heat is likely to make things even more difficult.

“People are finding the heat, as you’re doing a stretcher carry with a mask on, it really drains you even more,” Yochim says.

“It’s been quite a process that everyone’s going through to make sure they maintain their safety and the subject’s safety.”

Fundraising an additional load

B.C. SAR teams are completely made up of unpaid volunteers who have to foot the bill for much of their own equipment, from expensive backcountry ski boots to ropes and hiking boots, with only a small, annual subsidy.

Teams tend to put in many hours just trying to keep afloat and ahead of the cost of operations through fundraising, but Yochim says longtime calls for sustainable funding are finally getting through the political channels.

“We’ve been very fortunate with the province. They stepped up two years ago now and provided us with three years of funding. We’re working with them on trying to come up with sustainability funding going forward and we hope that will kick in in the next year so that’s something all the teams can plan for,” he says.

Despite the stress, the risk and the increase in people getting hurt and lost, B.C.’s 2,500 unpaid SAR techs have been able to respond to every single call, even offering mutual aid to neighbouring teams when requested.

“It’s been pretty impressive,” says Yochim.

Ten essentials

People are being encouraged, as always, to use BC AdventureSmart’s Trip Plan app that allows you to share your plans with loved ones and will notify them if you are returning late.

You should always tell someone responsible where you’re going, have appropriate shoes and clothing and pack the essential gear to keep you safe if something goes awry, according to North Shore Rescue’s website.

“This is another one that will both decrease your chances of getting to hang out with me or my colleagues, or you know, not making it back at all. Quite frankly, you should have a small backpack no matter how simple the hike, and in this backpack, you should have the following:”

  • Flashlight
  • Fire making kit
  • Signalling device (i.e. whistle)
  • Extra food and water
  • Extra clothing (Warm Clothing)
  • Navigational/communication devices (GPS, Map & Compass, Satellite Communications Device, Cell Phone)
  • First aid kit
  • Emergency blanket/shelter
  • Pocket knife
  • Sun protection