Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kimberley Search and Rescue (SAR) have continued to work diligently to keep people safe, while urging extra caution to back country users in order to prevent needless strain on their services and those of our healthcare providers.
“I have to say that the people in Kimberley have been terrific and have followed the guidance from our local and provincial leaders,” president and search manager Peter Reid said. “We have asked people to be careful when using the backcountry. We haven’t asked them to stay in their houses because we believe there are positive effects in being in nature and would not want people to give that up. We are a community of outdoor people. Social distancing is easy to accomplish in the back country around Kimberley.”
Reid added that he’s found that people have respected SAR’s recommendations to use extra caution when they are out and spend time close to home.
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“The calls we have gotten are not because of high risk behaviours but rather from happenstance,” Reid explained. “We are not seeing people participate in high risk behaviours and instead they have been conservatively complying to the request from both our local and regional governments to carefully enjoy the outdoors where we all live.”
Reid’s role with SAR is on a 100 per cent volunteer basis.
“It is certainly a passion for me but does not put food on the table,” Reid said.
Reid’s paid job, working for Sun Life as a remote head office employee, has only been impacted by the pandemic in that he and his colleagues have been asked not to travel for work. For Reid this means all his usual in-person work must be done over Zoom, and because he’s normally required to travel a lot for work, he has regained a great deal of time, allowing him to focus on his long list of SAR projects.
“For me and my spouse nothing much has changed,” Reid said. “We live on a small property and our lives are here. We haven’t been able to spend as much time with friends as we normally do. We live quiet lives and the biggest loss is not being able to visit, in person, with our aging parents.”
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Reid added the other thing he and his wife miss the most is spending time with their extended SAR family.
“We are both instructors and travel the province teaching advanced search and rescue courses such as search management, leadership, and ground search leadership,” he explained. “I personally miss working with other teams sharing my experience and knowledge. I was fortunate this year, before the travel bans, to travel to the Yukon to teach a ground search team leader course. I will be happy when I can return to this part of my SAR ‘job.’”
In response to the pandemic, SAR team leaders re-wrote their activation policy, necessitating a number of different changes.
SAR cancelled their in-person general training, but due to the nature of their work, it is important that their specialty teams are still training, so they do that in small groups and in an outdoor setting. SAR also purchased a Zoom account for training purchases as well.
When responding to a call for service, SAR are screening responders using an approved screening tool they developed through the direction and guidance of the Provincial Minister of Health.
“When we call out the team they prepare in place and then respond to a staging area,” Reid explained. “We practice social distancing when we are waiting for an assignment and limit the number of members in a response truck.”
SAR has also changed the way they approach their subjects. One member will approach the subject wearing full PPE, including an N96 respirator, safety glasses, medical gloves and a Gortex jacket and pants.
They then screen the subject and determine if they present any risk.
“We ask the subject to wear a mask, which we provide, and if they are able, we walk them out ensuring we are 2 metres away from them,” Reid continued. “If the subject requires first aid and evacuation, we will mask the subject, if possible. All of the responders who have to carry the subject will be in full PPE.”
After every call SAR’s trucks and gear are sanitized thoroughly. They’ve also asked their helicopter companies to adhere to their new policies.
“This has increased the time we have to commit because our return to readiness takes a lot longer and taxes our volunteers,” Reid said.
As businesses and services gradually begin to enter reopening phases, SAR will also be in a “new normal,” but they are not reopening.
“Search and Rescue was deemed an essential service and our response and training was modified to meet the safety guidelines to prevent infection,” Reid explained. “The most affected part of our team, was training and we altered it to keep our members safe. Our reopening is to follow the guidelines of the provincial health authority and slowly start training again in person.”
SAR will phase training back in by allowing specialty teams to train in more advanced techniques and allowing their general training to happen in person once more. One of their leaders has been working on a regional search manager training weekend, so once approved, that session will be held.
Regional member training sessions will start up again, combining their specialty teams with other similar teams in the region.
“This means when we are asked to come to help we know the other teams and as a larger group will act like a well-oiled machine,” Reid said.
All COVID-related changes aside, SAR has a lot going.
They have continued to build their team and develop their members and specialty skills.
“There are a lot of new members from the community that have chosen to volunteer with us,” Reid said. “This new cohort had completed as much of their training that they can do and are looking forward to taking further courses when they open up.
“They have one last requirement to complete and that is their ‘overnighter’. This is where they each go into the back country with the contents of their rescue pack and create a camp and stay overnight, by themselves, relying on themselves. No luxuries there.”
SAR is also investing in their specialty teams through training, equipment and by building on their current skill set.
For example, Reid said that their swift-water team members will go through re-certification this year, with some taking a jet boat swift-water operations course while others will take their SRT 4, which will train them in advanced swift-water operations.
Their ropes team is currently training and looking to when they are able to spend a weekend at a local climbing crag, learning from each other.
Their avalanche team will spend four days in a backcountry cabin using their avalanche response plan for a mass-casualty resigns, snow studies and advance travel techniques.
“We are fortunate that we have Canadian Avalanche Association (CAA) Level 1 and 2 members,” Reid said. “This year we will be send another member to CAA Level 1 operations course. This is in addition to the courses they already have. If we are successful with our funding request, we will be sending our AVSAR team to a 4-day advanced, very intense, avalanche response skills course.”
SAR has also been successful with their capital gaming applications, and have purchased more snowmobiles for winter responses as well as a new jet boat for use on the area’s larger rivers. They will be using the boat to train their members and Reid said to make sure to wave and say hi when you see them on the water.
They’ve also been taking steps to get a new building and secure property to store all of their equipment and provide a safe place for their members to train.
“We are so thankful to the city of Kimberley for providing us with our current facilities but we have out grown them and are looking for a new place to call home,” Reid explained. “It is a huge project that will take a lot of our team’s time. It will terrific to have all of our equipment in one place, be able to train in our building, be able to run our rescue responses from there and have a training room for regional training.”
Since joining SAR in 2003, Reid said he’s seen an increase in the number of calls, but more importantly, in the complexity of the calls.
“We need to have a command team rather than one person trying to do it all,” he said. “Our current command unit which is the base of our search and rescue operations is too small.”
SAR is applying for gaming grant money in order to add to their current unit by replacing the truck portion and adding an additional eight feet to the box, which will allow them to provide working space for everyone.
Reid said he is hopeful that the grants will be available this year, but will not be surprised if they are held off, due to the costs of the pandemic.
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