Elk Valley search and rescue groups could be forced to resort to bake sales and grant writing to cover their basic costs if provincial funding is not renewed by the end of this month.
In 2016 and 2017, the Liberal government announced two one-time grants of $10 million and $5 million for the BC Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) to be shared between 80 SAR groups across the province.
There were hopes this year’s budget would include a long-term funding model for search and rescue, as proposed by BCSARA in 2015.
However, there was nothing in the B.C. Budget 2019 for BCSARA and SAR groups have been left scrambling with current funding to run out March 31.
The uncertainty comes amid increasing demand for search and rescue services in B.C.
“The 80 SAR groups across the province are now responding to upward of 1700 incidents every year, which is more Ground SAR callouts than in the entire rest of Canada,” said BCSARA East Kootenay Director and Sparwood SAR Manager, Ed Ehrler.
“All of the Ground SAR members in B.C. are volunteers – or unpaid professionals as we like to call them. There are over 2500 of them and they’re on call 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.”
Ehrler said SAR groups do much more than finding and rescuing people in the wilderness.
“We also search for missing children or people with dementia, we assist with local emergencies such as floods or wildfire evacuations, and we provide outdoor safety education and prevention programs to people of all ages, just to name a few,” he said.
The one-time funding provided by the B.C. Government has been used by SAR groups to pay for basic costs including safety and rescue equipment and training, operational expenses like utilities, licenses and insurance, and capital items such as response vehicles and building projects.
Some of the money also went to province-wide initiatives such as AdventureSmart, SAR’s prevention program, and the Critical Incident Stress Management program, which offers support to SAR volunteers exposed to traumatic events.
Ehrler said in the past, SAR groups have had to spend tens of thousands of hours applying for grants, seeking out donations and holding fundraising events to cover these costs.
“That’s a lot of extra work considering the SAR volunteers already give 300,000 hours of their time to BC’s SAR program each year,” he said.
“And since none of those funding sources are guaranteed, it’s simply not a sustainable way to fund the critical emergency response services needed by so many people every year.”
Since 2015, BCSARA has been advocating for a funding model dubbed the Alternative Support Model, which asks for about $6 million annually.
Ehrler said this would benefit the entire province, including the three SAR groups in Fernie, Sparwood and Elkford, which have responded to more incidents than usual in the past year.
“The 80 Search and Rescue groups in B.C. are very much looking forward to an announcement from the B.C. Government about sustainable funding for SAR, so that they can be confident that they’ll be able to focus their effort on providing life-saving services, without having to worry if they’ll be able to raise enough money to keep the lights on for another year,” he said.
Funding uncertainty puts tourism image at risk
Fernie’s reputation as a safe tourist destination could be at risk if the Province fails to renew funding for search and rescue services across B.C.
Last year, Fernie Search and Rescue (SAR) responded to 40 calls – nearly one a week. Many of these were complicated backcountry rescues requiring a highly skilled response, while a number involved tourists.
“There’s a general expectation I think of our tourists who are encouraged to come here and recreate in our backcountry,” said Fernie SAR Manager Simon Piney.
“They expect a professional response if they break an ankle or have a heart attack. I’d say it’s quite fundamental to what B.C. is all about. Everyone is into recreating, our tourists and our residents, and I think they have a pretty realistic expectation that help is available if they get into trouble.”
Fernie SAR has over 30 members who must maintain professional certifications in a wide range of skills, including long line rescue, heli rescue, avalanche rescue, swift water rescue, ice rescue and rope rescue.
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Piney said these take “phenomenal” amounts of time to maintain, estimating Fernie SAR volunteers put nearly 5000 hours into training and responses last year.
“It’s a big commitment… people are putting in three or four hours a week on average and obviously some people are doing an awful lot more than that,” he said.
“Often at inconvenient times of the day or night, often at weekends, often when they should be with family.
“When we have to also add to that hundreds and hundreds of hours of writing grants, doing bake sales, lobbying businesses around town to make donations so we can do fundraisers, that’s where we get volunteer burnout.”
When Piney started with SAR about 15 years ago, the Fernie group had only an old BC Hydro truck and a handful of radios.
As tourism and backcountry use has increased over the years, so has the level of expertise and equipment required for rescues.
“It’s just the way things are with more tourists, more people in the backcountry, the types of incidents have become more complicated and I would say also the expectations are much higher – people are hoping to see a helicopter when they probe their SPOT device, and they’re hoping to see advanced medical support,” said Piney.
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For the past three years, Fernie SAR has received $80,000 annually through the Province’s one-off contributions to BCSARA.
Piney said the group is conservative with its limited funds, only buying equipment that is complementary to neighbouring SAR groups.
Fernie is fortunate compared to other SAR teams around B.C. because it is supported by the City, which provides them with a base rent-free and also pays their utilities.
Fernie SAR is recompensed for callout expenses – around $1000 a task, according to Piney – but that doesn’t cover any capital cost items.
“Our long line kit cost $150,000, our truck cost $180,000, our swift water gear cost $25,000, all of those things don’t get covered by $1000 here or there,” he said.
“In the past, we’d go out, we’d do fundraising and bake sales, but it really doesn’t get you very far relative to a piece of kit that costs $125,000.”
Sparwood SAR is faced with the same dilemma after receiving approximately $40,000 annually from the B.C. Government for the past three years.
This has allowed the group to complete upgrades to their building and yard following a fire in 2016, as well as conduct training to improve their response capabilities in avalanche terrain and with snowmobiles, replace or upgrade some rescue equipment to comply with current safety guidelines, and cover operating expenses such as insurance, utilities, and radio licences.
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Sparwood SAR has 21 active members plus a number of members in training. Last year, they responded to 20 calls – a record for the group – and put in just shy of 4000 hours.
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While Sparwood SAR receives in-kind support from the District of Sparwood for its hall and fuel, and some funding from the Regional District of East Kootenay, the remainder of its budget is fulfilled through a combination of grants, private donations, and fundraising.
If the Province does not renew funding for SAR, the group will be forced to return to a grant and fundraising-based approach.
Sparwood SAR Vice President Andrea Murland said there are a number of disadvantages to being reliant on grants.
“The first is the uncertainty it brings to the operation of the team,” she said. “There are overhead costs associated with insuring equipment, maintaining it in ‘rescue-ready’ status and safe to operate, radio licenses, and maintaining certifications required to be operational.
“Without stable funding, the risk is always present of having insufficient funding to keep the lights on.”
Murland explained most grants are tied to particular projects or costs and have deadlines for spending, reducing the group’s ability to plan several years in advance for training costs, equipment replacement or projects.
The administrative burden it places on volunteers is also significant.
“This increases volunteer burnout and reduces the time spent training,” said Murland.
“SAR in B.C. is world class and our volunteers are considered unpaid professionals, and held to that standard. The expectation of the public and our provincial association when our services are required is that we are responding in a manner that is safe for all involved, and that we are competent in the various environments, scenarios, and technical fields that we operate in.
“That expectation is incompatible with ad hoc funding and it is time for the province to provide long-term, stable funding for the SAR groups in B.C.”
To share your views on SAR funding, email: The Honourable Mike Farnworth, Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, at PSSG.Minister@gov.bc.ca; and The Honourable Carole James, Minister of Finance and Deputy Premier, at FIN.Minister@gov.bc.ca.
Editor’s note: BCSARA received $15 million in one-time grants from the B.C. Government between 2016 and 2018, not $15 million a year as previously reported.