Over the edge — without a zipline

“It’s exciting… stressful sometimes. There’s an adrenaline rush going over the edge on a rope descent,” says Barry Blair. No, it isn’t a virtual reality game or a recreational zipline ride through a tree canopy. “It” is being a member of a trained ground search and rescue (GSAR) group.

Blair is an 18-year veteran of Arrowsmith Search and Rescue, one of approximately 2,500 women and men across BC who are available on call, whenever one of us gets into trouble in difficult and remote terrain or on inland waterways.

The province’s 79 GSAR groups have remained on-duty during COVID-19. Some BC Search and Rescue (SAR) groups experienced a spike in calls in July, but in the area served by Arrowsmith SAR (think District 69), “this summer’s incident call-outs are only marginally higher than previous years,” says Blair.

Practicing a steep terrain rescue.

It’s a job that’s been made more challenging by COVID-19. Searchers cannot always distance themselves from their search team partners or from the person being rescued. Very strict protocols have been implemented to ensure Arrowsmith SAR team members are symptom free, wear face masks or shields, and carefully assess a missing person (when found) to learn if they have symptoms or have recently travelled.

Arrowsmith SAR has about 45 – 50 members at any given time, organized into teams by, and trained in, specific skill sets such as conducting steep terrain rescues using ropes. On a complex search, inter-agency teams, including police, fire, coast guard, paramedics and, worst case, the coroner service, are tightly integrated for the duration of the response. When needed, Hazel or Pickles, two dogs certified by the RCMP, but owned and handled by Island SAR volunteers, bring critical canine search expertise to the team.

Arrowsmith Search and Rescue is currently looking for a dozen or so good men and women to join the team, with an intake training program scheduled to begin in September 2020.

All calls to 9-1-1 about a missing or injured person in the backcountry go to Emergency Management BC who will typically dispatch the call to Oceanside RCMP. The RCMP then decides if assistance is required from an Arrowsmith SAR team. Requests for assistance with person search and rescue / recovery, as well as searches for evidence, can also come from the local Fire Department, the Coroners Office, Coast Guard or BC Parks.

Training is paramount. Every new member initially receives basic search and rescue training, and then can proceed with more in-depth learning toward formal GSAR certification. Skills are kept sharp and current. Every month, members attend a couple of evening or week-end training sessions. While most of the training is provided “in house” by qualified instructors, the core course content is facilitated through the Justice Institute of BC, the central agency in BC for training professionals in public safety roles. Arrowsmith SAR members have the opportunity to become team leaders, instructors and search managers, depending on their experience, training and interest.

Training on a local mountain trail.

To a person who is found or rescued, and to their worried family and friends, the true value of BC’s SAR service is priceless.  A 2013 report by the BC Search and Rescue Association estimated that the total on-the-job hours (i.e. time spent in actual response to calls for assistance), if paid at the average rate of an RCMP constable’s wage, would exceed $20 million dollars annually. If we add in training time and administrative tasks, the value of all work done by uncompensated GSAR volunteers across BC could easily exceed $50 million annually.

Arrowsmith SAR’s work is not just incident response. They also provide outdoor recreation safety education for the public based on AdventureSmart programs, such as Hug a Tree & Survive, as part of a local youth summer camp.

A modest, self-confessed “book nerd,” Arrowsmith SAR’s Barry Blair might seem an unlikely candidate for this role. Why do Blair, a retired high school math and sciences teacher, and others choose to volunteer to provide this essential and valuable service? “It gets my nose out of a book. It’s also on-going learning, and I love to learn, Blair says. “It’s a good group of people,” and the often rewarding work takes team members “out of their regular day jobs.”

Volunteers — yes, they are all volunteers — do not need to be Superman or Superwoman. If you are interested in joining the Arrowsmith Search and Rescue group, here are some things you should know:

  • Arrowsmith Search and Rescue is currently looking for a dozen or so good men and women to join the team, with an intake training program scheduled to begin in September 2020.
  • The training is free, and typically scheduled on week-ends or week-day evenings to accommodate members with regular Monday – Friday work commitments.
  • As a member, you personally don’t need to be available 24 x 7 x 365; you just need to make sure you tell the Arrowsmith SAR admin staff in advance when you will be unavailable.
  • Nor do you need to be an Olympic level athlete, but a good level of physical fitness is important.
  • There is always a need for administrative support work to be done by volunteers that is not physically demanding.
  • Those interested in becoming Arrowsmith SAR members must submit an application form and complete an interview with senior group members. See ArrowsmithSAR.ca for details.
One of Arrowsmith Search and Rescue’s teams on the job.