Rescue Ready

Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue members always on duty to help.

This ongoing training is done throughout the organization’s search area in mountains, rivers, classrooms and anywhere they can make the training as realistic as possible.

Member Ann Nygren practices her rope skills.

Member Ann Nygren practices her rope skills.

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

The result of all this practice is that CVGSAR members are some of the best-trained search and rescue technicians in the province, and they are often called upon to assist with missions in other areas. This past summer alone they responded to two calls from Pemberton to assist with technical mountain rescues, and team members were also involved in the high-profile search for William Pilkenton, a seven-year-old American boy who was swept off a rocky shoreline in Tofino last February.

The CVGSAR team, one of about 70 search and rescue organizations across the province, receives 25 to 35 calls each year and has received as many as three calls in a single day during the busy summer months. The Comox Valley team is the sixth-busiest in the province outside of the Lower Mainland, Berry says, and the frequency of calls, especially medical evacuations, is increasing.

“Generally in society there’s more of a push to be active, to be out there,” he says, offering his hypothesis on why calls are increasing. “We have prime territory for recreation and so more and more people are moving further and further into the backcountry than they may have done before. With more people out there, there’s more opportunity for things to go wrong.”

There’s no precise blueprint for how people get into situations where they’re suddenly in need of rescue, Berry says, “but in most cases it’s a lack of a complete understanding of the environment that an inexperienced person might be going into. So in swift water, for example, it’s not having taken the training that they could have taken, or not anticipating the conditions that exist in the river at that particular time.

“The same in the backcountry,” he continues. “Hikers will hike through relatively easy terrain then move into the type of terrain that you see in Strathcona Park. It moves beyond trails and into route-finding, where you really need to rely on your navigation skills.” Many backcountry hikers, he says, have outdoors skills that are not as refined or strong as they should be, and they get delayed or run out of food when they discover that the terrain is more difficult than they expected.

One positive development that’s occurred over the last several years, however, is that more people are entering the backcountry with cellular phones or GPS systems, technological tools that can assist a rescue team in the event that they are needed. A perfect example of this, though not one that involved CVGSAR directly, was the recent fatal crash of a Pacific Coastal flight in the mountains near Port Hardy. A survivor was able to use his cell phone to relay their location to the search team, which arrived at the crash site within hours.

When you consider the vast size of the organization’s geographical area, the number of calls to which it is required to respond and the intense training that’s involved, it seems incredible that CVGSAR does it all on a modest annual budget of less than $50,000. The Provincial Emergency Program covers expenses incurred while on actual missions, Berry says, and the organization receives funding for other expenses through the Comox Valley Regional District and organizations like the United Way and the Comox Valley Community Foundation. The difference is made up through fundraising initiatives.

The organization’s two major fundraisers are the Comox Valley’s annual ski swap and gear swap. The ski swap is held each November at the Filberg Centre in Downtown Courtenay and the gear swap is an annual spring event held at the Native Sons Hall. The CVGSAR team also undertakes a number of smaller fundraising initiatives throughout the year.

As well as CVGSAR has done with fundraising—they own an initial response vehicle and equipment van, and they share a mobile command centre with the Provincial Emergency Program—they still haven’t found a solution to their most pressing concern: a need for more space. The organization is currently based out of a cramped building behind Wal-Mart that is has long ago outgrown, and Berry says that the team is trying to acquire some donated land on which to build new headquarters. Similar land donation arrangements have been made by search and rescue organizations in Campbell River and Parksville, and Berry is optimistic that it will work in the Comox Valley as well. Although they’ve been involved in ongoing negotiations with the municipalities and the regional district, nothing has materialized so far.

Men and women interested in joining CVGSAR are generally accepted into the basic training program each year with little or no experience, but due to the high number of current members it’s unlikely that the organization will be recruiting volunteers this year. Prospective members are still welcome to join the team for its weekly training, although they won’t be able to respond to actual calls until they’ve completed the mandated basic training.

The best way to help the organization in the meantime, Berry says, is to support its fundraising events. The next one will be the 2008 Ski Swap on November 1 and 2 at the Filberg Centre.

While CVGSAR volunteers hope to see you out at the Ski Swap, they’d be more than happy to never have to see you out in the bush. If you ever do find yourself in trouble in the vast wilderness surrounding the Comox Valley, however, be thankful that our community has such a dedicated group of unsung heroes just waiting to jump at the call to lend you a hand. ¦

To learn more about Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue, visit www.cvgsar.com.