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B.C. announces historic funding for search and rescue amid rising demand

The provincial government committed $18.6 million in search and rescue funding Saturday

By Brandon Wei , in City Feature story Sport , on March 27, 2019 Tags: , , ,

Ryan Cross is no stranger to the mountains. He’s explored the backcountry in Europe, made tracks on the West Coast Trail, climbed the Sea to Sky corridor, and traversed both the Rockies and the North Shore mountains.

So when Cross and his brother set out to hike a new trail on Grouse Mountain on the morning of June 22, 2014 — an area they’ve been to hundreds of times — the last thing he expected was to be returning by helicopter with a broken arm.

“I don’t know what I did or how it started, but I fell,” said Cross. “One moment I was standing, the next I was sliding.”

Cross spent the afternoon dangling from a helicopter flown by North Shore Rescue, one of 80 volunteer-run search-and-rescue teams that operate across the province. The helicopter carrying his rescuers was funded through Emergency Management BC, a government agency that co-ordinates rescue services. But the harness he rode in did not have guaranteed provincial funding, nor did the helicopter time SAR members used for training.

And with Cross being just one call out of around 1,700 that search-and-rescue groups across the province receive every year, many to save lost hikers or people caught in avalanches, the need for funding this equipment and training is always a concern — especially as the number of search-and-rescue incidents increases.

And after a month of financial uncertainty following no mention of any new dollars for search and rescue in the February B.C. budget, the province addressed this need with an injection of $18.6 million Saturday, the largest single amount in history.

“These funds will fill an immediate need so that B.C.’s search-and-rescue crews can continue the important work they do,” said Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth.

While SAR team members expressed relief over the announcement, concerns still remain as many are still waiting for a long-term solution.

Hope for a sustainable funding model

Farnworth also announced the province is working towards a sustainable funding model for search and rescue in B.C. over the next three years — a project the BC Search and Rescue Association has been advocating for since 2013.

Crampons like these are not guaranteed by provincial funds.

“That is the ultimate goal for the association … to not have to have this constant wonder about how much money we’re going to get,” said Chris Mushumanski from the association. “Unlike some other emergency-response groups, where they are a budget line item and they know they’re going to get X amount per year, the 80 groups do not currently have that.”

Every year, SAR teams across B.C. apply for a government grant for expenses not guaranteed by Emergency Management BC. Training and equipment fall into that category. The amount they receive, however, is unpredictable.

“We’ve applied for $100,000 and gotten $5,000,” said Mushumanski. “Other years we apply for $100,000 and get $100,000.”

Along with training and equipment, the association plans on allocating the funds to prevention programs and programs that provide psychological first aid for SAR volunteers as their call numbers rise.

Search-and-rescue need grows

Search-and-rescue teams in B.C. received around 400 calls per year in 1990, and now they average more than 1,700 per year — a 325-per-cent increase.

North Shore Rescue broke its number of calls in 2018, totaling 144 for the year.

Source: North Shore Rescue.

Mike Danks, team captain of North Shore Rescue, said his team sees a lot of people coming to the North Shore Mountains from the city — many unprepared.

“They don’t take into account what the current weather is, what the current conditions are on that trail, how long it’s going to take to get there,” said Danks. “They just see a peak on social media and say, ‘Oh, that peak looks wonderful. It’s got this great view!’”

Mushumanski echoed this sentiment,  adding that “groups that do avalanche training, rope rescue … mountain rescue are going to have substantially higher costs than groups that don’t have those capabilities.”

Social-media effect pulls more into mountains

Mushumanski attributes much of the rescue-call increase to what SAR has dubbed the “social-media effect.”

A woman being photographed standing atop a frozen Yew Lake, despite the cautionary “thin ice” sign.

“We advertise ourselves as beautiful British Columbia,” said Mushumanski. “That increase in tourism has generated an increase of people … standing on a mountaintop, or on the edge of a waterfall, or wherever in B.C. —  that gets posted and viewed by thousand of eyeballs.”

As people act more precariously for the shot, rescues have become more complex in recent years, he said, adding further strain to search-and-rescue funds.

“More equipment and training [is needed] in order to be successful in effecting those searches and rescues,” said Mushumanski. “Groups need more money than they might have needed 25 years ago.”

Emphasizing prevention as a way to avoid needing a severe rescue, Mushumanski said the best way to be prepared is to be informed.

“Take some essentials with you every time you go, train beforehand, and tell somebody where you’re going. File a trip plan,” he said. “It’s not really complicated.”

And Cross did many of those things before his fateful hike on Grouse Mountain. His phone was charged, he had maps, and he wasn’t hiking alone. Simple things that could end up saving a life — just as they did his.


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