BC government search and rescue ban ignores rural, northern needs

Written By Rob Shaw

“The frustration is in not knowing when it’s going to end.”

–-Dwight Yochim

It should have been a big win for Northern B.C. when a member of the Houston search and rescue team decided to use his own money and time to start training his dog to become the first search and rescue K9 north of Kamloops.

But Houston quickly ran into a brick wall, in the form of the B.C. government — specifically, a little-known and rarely-publicly-acknowledged provincial moratorium on certifying new skills for search and rescue teams, which has been in place for the last three years.

“We can’t understand why EMCR [the Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness] is so reluctant to allow teams to develop these capabilities,” said Andy Muma, president of Houston SAR.

“The part that’s been really frustrating the last three years is they won’t go public with their moratorium. They won’t put it in writing. There’s no transparency in this. And we are left explaining this to our community. They are looking at us like, we don’t understand what you are talking about, we see SAR teams all the time on TV.”

“They won’t put it in writing. There’s no transparency in this.”

Andy Muma

Without provincial approval, Houston SAR can’t officially train, purchase equipment or prepare for new skills. The owner of the potential search dog is spending his own money, and up to 20 hours of his own time per week, undergoing preliminary training in Merritt, said Muma.

A search and rescue dog on a training exercise. [Image BC Search Dog Association]

“The dog passed its first level of certification at the top of its class, and the association is saying it’s a great dog you need to keep pursuing it,” said Muma. “We got the message and were like, this is cool, this is a go, but how are we going to get past EMCR and this moratorium?”

Frustration compels public push back against moratorium

Houston SAR decided to go public with its concerns, saying the moratorium has derailed plans by two other northern teams who want to pursue K9 search capabilities, the Fort St. James SAR team that wants to learn tracking and the Bulkley Valley SAR team that wants to learn flat-ice rescues in case someone falls through the ice while fishing on a lake.

“We have been made aware that EMCR expects to lift the moratorium in three more years which means British Columbians will have gone six years with teams not being able to improve or add to their capabilities,” Houston SAR wrote in a letter to Premier David Eby this week.

“These capabilities immediately save lives and prevent the pain and anguish of a fatality due to the lack of approval to respond to a specific type of incident.”

“It’s hard to go to EMCR and say we’re not agreeing [because] … your funding might be jeopardized.”

Andy Muma

A six-year ban on expanding the skillsets of B.C.’s 78 ground search and rescue teams would seem to be a bizarre policy decision for an NDP government.  After all, this government regularly touts funding announcements in support of the SAR sector, primarily made up of volunteers.

Squamish search and rescue staff member Dr. Nicole Sugden is lowered 250 metres alongside the grand wall of Squamish Chief Mountain to rescue a base jumper. [Photo Squamish SAR]

“The pause on accepting applications for new elective capabilities was put in place to ensure that Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) resources are best aligned with the needs of the requesting agencies, such as the RCMP and BC Emergency Health Services,” the emergency management ministry said in a statement.

“If there is a recognized, significant public safety risk, support and training for new capabilities may be offered.”

Ministry of Emergency Management and Climate Readiness statement

Acting minister George Heyman refused an interview request on why it has taken three years for the province to conduct a needs assessment, and why it may need an additional three years.

“You can hear the frustrations,” Dwight Yochim, CEO of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association, said of his members.

“They didn’t see a light at the end of the tunnel, they kept hearing this moratorium was going to continue until the needs analysis was done and then they weren’t hearing when the needs analysis would be done. That’s caused the frustration. My understanding is the needs analysis will be done in the next three years.”

Search and rescue calls rise, rural needs acute

During the moratorium, search and rescue calls in B.C. have risen annually from around 1,500 a year to 1,700 a year, with as many as 2,000 annually forecast within five years, said Yochim.

In rural B.C., where mutual aid calls are common across a vast geographic landscape, the frustration is particularly acute.

“At any given time any call could take us three or four hours to get to that destination,” said Frank McDonald, Houston’s SAR manager. 

“We are also doing a lot of mutual aid calls where we could be in Dease Lake, so it’s taken us eight hours to get there, we assess the situation and say we can’t perform here because we need a rope team and we’re not allowed to train for a rope team. 

“So now we have to search for a rope team. And that could who knows how long, and meanwhile we are standing at the top of the hill saying we can’t help you, and the family is asking why aren’t you doing anything?”

“We are … saying we can’t help you and the family is asking why aren’t you doing anything?”

Frank McDonald

Houston SAR would like to see Eby conduct an audit of provincial SAR management. It acknowledges by going public it could face retribution by the NDP government in the form of funding cuts.

“It’s hard to go to EMCR and say we’re not agreeing with these operational policies, because we have been getting the old, well if you rock the boat too much your funding might be jeopardized,” said Muma. 

“Those are never put in writing, they are verbal statements, hints, they are like, oh my goodness treasury board might not like this.”

It’s not a position search and rescue volunteers want to be in.

“I hate doing this and this is not what I’m doing search and rescue for,” said Muma. “But I felt like we’ll lose our K9 volunteer.”

‘There’s a lot of change being imposed’

The skill certification moratorium is just one part of a larger dispute between ground SAR groups and the provincial government right now.

The NDP’s new Emergency and Disaster Management Act this fall came with a requirement for ground SAR groups to register with the government as “public safety providers.” 

The government says it will help provide liability coverage for SAR teams. But some are concerned about even more provincial control over their deployment, and bristle at signing deadlines set by the province, which have now been bumped to Feb. 15.

“They are being obligated to sign off on as-yet undrafted regulations.”

Jordan Sturdy

“The organizations would like to have some regulations to determine responsibilities and processes and clarity because there’s a sense the regional managers at EMCR are exercising authority around operations, which has never been where government has been in the past,” said BC United critic Jordan Sturdy.

“There’s a lot of change being imposed by the EDMA legislation and I think the main message is they are being obligated to sign off on as-yet undrafted regulations.”

Search and rescue teams across BC were busy this year on several large scale searches. [Photo Coquitlam SAR]

B.C. Search and Rescue Association president Chris Mushamanski said he’s optimistic the province and SAR groups will sort things out.

Everyone though is less optimistic about the moratorium.

“The frustration is in not knowing when it’s going to end,” said Yochim.

It has also left the NDP ripe for attack by critics over its mistreatment of the SAR community.

“I hope we can put an end to this government’s heavy-handed approach when it comes to their relationship with our search and rescue teams,” BC United leader Kevin Falcon wrote in a letter to the SAR community this month.

“You deserve far better than this treatment from the NDP.”