Last month when a dog fell into Buck Creek in Houston, a local girl rescued it but the Houston Search and Rescue team was not seen around the creek nor were they called in. The reason being, the Houston Search and Rescue (SAR), like two other SAR teams in the regional district, do not have the authority and recognition from the province, to conduct swift water rescues.
The BC SAR Regional Director for Bulkley Nechako and the President for Houston SAR, Andy Muma, presented these and several other deficits that the five SAR teams in the region face that could leave the communities vulnerable during a Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako meeting last month.
“To me any search has risk associated,” said Muma in an interview with Black Press Media in citing the example of the search for a nine-year-old boy two years ago.
“Kids play in the water so as a SAR manager, the first place I ideally want people is out there searching the rivers right away in the local area,” he said.
The boy was found safe four hours later, not in a water body but not having the necessary authority to do a search and rescue in water, “that’s where some urgency for me comes. Any call that comes in for me I get this horrible feeling of never being prepared; what do I need to do, do I have the resources and it is a situation I don’t want to be in; it haunts me,” Muma said.
What do the SAR teams in the region need?
Out of the five regional SAR teams, only the Nechako Valley SAR in Vanderhoof and Bulkley Valley SAR in Smithers hold the recognition for a swift water rescue while Houston, Fort St James and Burns Lake SAR groups do not have the permission to train for this type of rescue. The Bulkley Valley SAR is the only team that is recognized for rope rescue in the region.
“The situation in Bulkley-Nechako is, we have five SAR teams, roughly spread an hour apart, from east to the west. If we don’t have a swift water rescue capability in Houston, we are waiting for a neighbouring team to come, and similarly for other regions that don’t have this capability,” said Muma.
He wants all five SAR teams in the region certified and recognized for four capabilities namely swift water rescue, flat ice rescue, winter and avalanche rescue and high angle rope rescue.
Muma also stated that while some region’s additional rescue mechanism like a fire department and the RCMP, possess one or all of these capabilities, none of the emergency response organizations in this region have the equipment or training.
“For the region, my pitch is, I know that we have a limited number of volunteers and I feel it is just too much geographic distance between towns to provide the quick response that the towns deserve; so my approach is to ask for these four capabilities and take a regional approach where we have those capabilities in each town and since we respond together anyway with mutual aid, we would have swift response within the town and have teams from elsewhere come in when needed,” said Muma.
What is being done to address the gap?
“People don’t realize that it is Emergency Management BC (EMBC), the provincial government agency that decides which teams would have which capabilities and they are the ones running this so they are the ultimate decision makers,” said Muma.
A provincial SAR needs assessment is to be done soon and Muma hope communities with SAR groups lacking in advanced training have an opportunity to have their say.
Traditionally, Northern BC SAR groups have been under-resourced with challenges accessing training, funding, and volunteer recruitment. Muma pointed out two concerns that the province often faces when allocating resources to SARs, dilution of funds and the additional safety and administration work that would come with more teams getting the capabilities.
“The assumption is, everyone sees Search and Rescue and they almost expect people to come in helicopters and on ropes and haul people out and I just want to make sure that people are aware, that not every team has that capability and also, the purpose of the needs assessment is, not all those teams can afford to have all those capabilities,” he said.
The province-wide needs assessment will determine which capability would be awarded to which SAR teams based on several factors including call volume, response time, risk assessment, etc.
Muma says the assessment will wrap up by the end of December but it could be extended.
“I just want people to be aware of what the gaps are and also encourage people to participate in the needs assessment when it comes out,” he said hoping that the needs assessment would prove to be beneficial for the region.
In supporting this region’s need for advanced training, Muma doesn’t want his comments to affect the assessments for other areas “because it is a really great program and we need it.”