Recent History – 2004-2006
By Brad Lyon
They get very little publicity, but when it comes to an emergency, two local volunteer search and rescue groups could be the difference between life and death. And both the air and ground search and rescue organizations currently are looking to recruit some new members. The Air Search and Rescue group has a membership of about 18-20. Many get involved because of a love of flying, and the opportunity to taketo the skies on a regular basis. And it’s that love of flying that got Gerry Randall, who has been a search and rescue pilot for 25 years, involved originally.
“If you’re flying, you want to be sure you’ve got a group that if you do go down, someone is going to be looking for you,” Randall said, in an interview after the local group’s December monthly meeting. “And if someone goes down in the aviation community, I want to be looking for them.”
The air search group is a semi-government sponsored organization,according to R.J. Lawrence, another of the pilots and the groundschool training instructor for the Dawson Creek group. It operates under federal regulations, under the auspices of the Department of National Defence.
“Our job is to be trained for emergency situations, looking for lost hunters, snowmobilers, aircraft etc,” Lawrence said.
“The military doesn’t provide the real quick response we can. It takes time for them to get organized,” Randall added. “We get called when someone is missing on Moberly Lake or the Peace River.”
Most recently, one plane was involved in the September search at Kelly Lake for Eva Mitchell. And last year, several planes were involved in the search for a drowning victim at Moberly Lake.
“Hopefully we’re not busy at all,” Lawrence said. “It’s a servicethat gives the community some sort of sense of security that if theyget lost, there is someone around to go looking for them.”
The local group meets monthly at Northern Lights College, and also schedules regular training sessions on weekends, as weather and plane availability allows. At the meetings, members discuss upcoming training, or recap previous training, and discuss ways of fixing any problems that were encountered.
The Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR) group, meanwhile, operates under provincial guidelines. GSAR responds to situations mainly involving overdue snowmobilers, canoeists or boaters. But members have been called out to help in evidence searches with the RCMP, or to provide traffic control and other assistance if a natural disaster arose.
“We have, in the last four years, probably had four call outs for missing persons,” said Lee Bowd.
GSAR members only become involved in a search and rescue at the request of the RCMP, Bowd explained. Along with the approximately a dozen members of the Dawson Creek group, there is also a group in Fort St. John with about 40 members.
Bowd and Nathan Hooey, one of the newest volunteers with GSAR, attended the December meeting of the air search and rescue group, with an interest in becoming spotters.
Discussion at that meeting highlighted what might seem like a surprising lack of communication between the two groups. The groups could be involved in the same search, but would not be able to talk to each other. The big problem is the two different levels of government involved with the groups.
Randall recalled a search situation on an area river, where both a plane and a ground crew were searching for some lost boaters. The plane spotted the boaters, but had no way of directly telling the ground searchers where to look.
“That’s something we really want to solve, communicating with the ground crew,” Lawrence said. Ironically, both the air and the ground units are doing a bit of searching themselves, as they are looking for new recruits to augment their membership.
Lawrence said that ideally the air group would like to set up formal crews to work with each pilot and become familiar with a specific plane. But his group is short of both navigators and spotters to create three-man crews, let alone provide backup members for each crew.
Right now, the air group has six pilots, but due to the lack of qualified people in the other positions, would not be able to put that many planes in the air if needed.
“If the pilots are flying, then we need trained navigators. We squeak by with two pilots in a plane,” Lawrence said, pointing out that it is not necessary to be a pilot or have your own plane to get involved.
“As long as they enjoy flying and have time to volunteer. I was insearch and rescue for years, and didn’t have my own plane.”
Formal training for the air group is required on an annual basis, for each of the three members that comprises a flight crew. Spotters require two hours of ground school training per year, navigators four, and pilots six.
Training for the GSAR group is a little more demanding, with an 80-hour training course required.
“Anybody who’s involved in the outdoors, it’s probably not a huge challenge, but it’s just the formality,” Bowd said. “That’s the realities we’re faced with in order to be certified.”
Training includes map and compass, rope handling, basic first aid, survival, radio communication, search techniques, with a lot of field experience built in. Currently, the Dawson Creek group is working with Fort St. John and Tumbler Ridge groups to get the training completed. Volunteers must also provide some of their own equipment, including a compass, outdoor gear, and 24-hour survival gear.
“We did pretty well about two years ago,” Bowd said, pointing to a peak membership of 15 members. “Mostly people’s jobs have changed, and they haven’t had the time to commit to it. The biggest problem is getting the momentum back again to have that many trained members.”