Three search and rescue teams in the Columbia Basin have new helicopter rescue equipment thanks to support from Columbia Basin Trust. Submitted photo

Search and Rescue receives funding for new equipment

Thanks to some recent funding by the Columbia Basin Trust, Fernie Search and Rescue (SAR) will be receiving some new rescue equipment. This will allow them to rescue individuals in hard-to-reach places.

A Helicopter Long Line Rescue System, or a Class D Fixed Line (CDFL) allows rescue personnel to hang underneath a helicopter and rappel down to an individual. Fernie SAR will be getting three new rappelling systems, one that reaches 100 feet and two that reach 50 feet. These can be attached together to reach up to 200 feet, if necessary.

“We use helicopters more and more in rescues these days,” said Fernie Search and Rescue manager, Simon Piney. “Particularly with the steep mountains we have around Fernie.”

“This [new equipment] bridges the gap,” said Piney. “So that we can get to places that would take a lot longer to get to, otherwise.”

With mountain rescues, this requires the helicopter to get close to the mountainside or tree-line. SAR often faces issues if the individual is out of reach, and requires a person to lower themselves down to their position. If a search and rescue member is scaling down the cliff, the possibility of kicking rock or other debris onto the individual can make the situation complicated.

“A helicopter longline is a really good way to go instead of that,” said Piney.

Many of the rescues SAR perform, and will be performing during the summer involve a person stuck up a mountain in a heavily forested area. Instead of the crew having to hike or ride up to the individual on what could be a single-track trail, they can now use the CDFL to retrieve the individual via helicopter. This could save time, and in Piney’s opinion, could also save lives.

With this new rescue system, a specialty pilot is required. Fernie is fortunate to have two pilots certified to pilot a helicopter with a CDFL. Greg Goodison and Dave Hawrys with Ascent Helicopters will be assisting Fernie SAR with the longline rescues.

The Fernie SAR team will be set up as a regional rescue team to handle longline rescues. They will now cover from the Alberta border, out to Invermere. Up until this point, the closest CDFL team has been in Golden. This requires a scramble pack, plus a 45-minute flight to get to Fernie. According to Piney, the majority of the rescues Fernie SAR performs are during the time when light is fading. They do not always have 45-minutes to spare.

Aside from Fernie’s new team, there are two certified CDFL pilots who work along side Bighorn Helicopters, in Cranbrook.

Fernie SAR has been looking at getting this upgrade for a few years. A recent donation of $86,000 from the Columbia Basin Trust, combined with internal and provincial funding, has allowed Fernie SAR to purchase the $125,000 upgrade.

In the last 12 months, Fernie SAR has conducted nine rescues and seven searches, which included missing sledders and skiers, as well as injured mountain bikers, dirt bikers and ATV users. Also in the past year, there have been two high-angle rescues off cliffs at the ski hill and one lost ultra runner in Waterton.

Simon Piney considers this a pretty quiet 12 months by their standards.

In 2015/16, Fernie SAR conducted 22 rescues and nine searches, ranging from a fatality recovery in the alpine to a simple injured hiker extraction. Also included in the rescues were stranded boaters on Lake Koocanusa, as well as various mountain bikers, hikers and snowmobilers.

Currently, Fernie SAR has technical rescue teams that are certified to respond to ground search and rescue, swiftwater ice rescue, high-angle rope rescue, avalanche rescue, helicopter rescue, avalanche canine response searches as well as canine response tracking in the summer.

With the new longline team, Fernie SAR has added another service to their extensive list.