While 2020 was a unique year for many reasons, for Campbell River SAR (CRSAR), the uniqueness was tied directly to the amount of work they had to do.
CRSAR responded to 105 operational calls last year, a substantial 28 per cent increase from the year before.
“Each response to a call out represents a large, coordinated effort on the part of our members, and considering this large increase, we have noticed the impact,” says CRSAR manager Grant Cromer in his year-end report.
Cromer points out that Campbell River is not alone. In fact, SAR groups all over B.C. have experienced increases in 2020. While there is a trend of small increases in call volume every year, Cromer says, the trend has been edging up “at a pretty steady rate” for the past decade.
Although the department doesn’t directly track the stats of what causes people to require SAR services, the provincial data of call volume and the increase in outdoor recreational equipment sales this past year leads them to the conclusion that COVID-19 was a big motivator of people choosing to go into the backcountry.
“COVID-19 was an obstacle in many people’s lives, in relation to our call volume, we can say that a small portion of our calls were probably related to COVID-19 ‘Cabin Fever,’” Cromer says in his report. “With the social distancing regulations in place for B.C. this past year, we believe that many people decided to venture to the backcountry to avoid the increased crowds on more accessible and populated trail systems, looking to try something new.
“Our members did respond to many calls for people who were overwhelmed and a little unprepared for some of the trips they were on,” he continues. “Individuals new to recreating in the backcountry, fuelled by excitement and overly ambitious pursuits in unfamiliar and more complex terrain than they are used to can easily find themselves in backcountry emergencies.”
But there was another complication brought about by the pandemic: fewer training opportunities.
“For most of 2020 our team has had to meet virtually, and with most provincial SAR courses were cancelled, we have had to generate all of our own virtual training opportunities,” Cromer says. “Although CRSAR members do maintain skills on operational calls, without the opportunity to fine tune and advance our skills in a group setting, skill development and progression are more limited. Looking ahead to 2021, there is hope that things will improve, and we can resume our normal training and meeting schedule.”
There have also been changes made to the team’s protocols when they are called out to help, with every step in the process changing to follow health orders.
“It’s very difficult to maintain a safe distance when performing first aid on a subject or riding in a helicopter, and as such, we have had to educate our members and make many adaptations to comply with health orders and safety of all involved,” Cromer says.
While the number of calls they responded to increased dramatically last year, Cromer says, the types of calls they were getting were pretty typical.
“The type of calls we responded to in 2020 included the typical lost/missing person calls, which sadly also included an increase of despondent person calls, and persons in mental health distress who have gone missing.
“There was a notable increase of what we would classify as high-risk backcountry calls, and several high alpine SAR calls,” he continues in his report. “These include people who had undertaken trips into high-risk environments such as mountain environments to climb, and backpack. These areas are unique to operate in as the terrain can be very difficult to travel in and the skill set to safely travel in these areas require specialized mountain rescue skills. We did have several calls in high alpine areas that put our alpine rescue team to the test.”
Not only do they respond to high-altitude areas, they also cover a huge geographic area by helicopter (roughly 35,000 square kilometres), and provide mutual aid to other SAR groups in the province.
“CRSAR members have travelled all over Vancouver Island as well as to locations on the mainland to assist other SAR groups when needed,” he said.
The team’s helicopter hoist rescue program had six calls for service in 2020, and in every instance, the ability to have a team deployed by hoist to the subjects, provide first aid and then fly to medical support was beneficial and in at least one case it was literally life-saving, Cromer says.
Last year saw an increase in the scale of some searches, which could involve multiple teams from all over B.C. to help find missing individuals.
“Several multi-day searches were conducted last year, involving multiple SAR teams from all over the province who came to Campbell River to search for a few individuals that went missing,” Cromer says. “These were large scale mutual aid searches, that normally would occur once or twice a year on the island, in 2020 we had three in our area.”
The canine team continued to be active on tasks and in training, and Pickle, the team’s dog, will be transitioning to retirement this year while the team’s canine handler is training a new puppy to become an eventual member within the group.
Intake for new members will be limited this year, Cromer says, as they take COVID protocols into consideration and working around social distancing by utilizing online platforms in place of their usual in person classroom format.
“Overall, it was a very busy year on many fronts and we expect that trend to continue,” Cromer says in his report. “We encourage everyone venturing into the backcountry to plan to be self-sufficient for 24 hours, including food, water, shelter, and a signalling device. Satellite beacons are worth their weight in gold in the event of an emergency as they provide us your exact location as well as the ability to communicate with you in situations where a cell phone is no use.
“With winter well upon us we encourage people to ensure they have the proper equipment, training in regards to snow safety and avalanche training [as well as] the knowledge, skills and fitness to undertake any backcountry adventure. Provide a loved one with your trip plan and stick to it.
Volunteers worked for 11,544 hours in 2020, with 6,499 hours of that on task.
“Over half of our time was spent on operational tasks away from their jobs and families. Considering the increase in call volume and the COVID-19 issues we faced, our members really stepped up to the demand in 2020.
Check out www.adventuresmart.ca for more backcountry travel tips and information.
For more news from Vancouver Island and beyond delivered daily into your inbox, please click here.