Kitimat Search and Rescue members celebrate the arrival of their response vehicle. (File photo)

Concerns rise as B.C. search and rescue funding set to expire

Kitimat SAR is one of 80 search-and-rescue groups that will be affected

Kitimat Search and Rescue is one of 80 units across the province that may not have a budget to operate by the end of March.

BC Search and Rescue northwest region director Mike Stekelenburg said the lack of provincial budget allocation will affect Kitimat, and Archipelago, Prince Rupert, Terrace, Stewart and Atlin SARs.

“No reason has been provided by the provincial government but we are still hopeful for a positive solution,” said Stekelenburg.

He said provincially SAR responds to over 1,700 calls per year, providing search and rescue options in urban and rural settings.

“This can be anything from lost children within the district, injured, lost snowmobilers and hunters, stranded fishermen, assisting policing agencies in body recovery and supporting local government with flood or snow events,” said Stekelenburg.

He said in the past Kitimat SAR, as all other SAR teams in the province, have relied on donations, provincial gaming grants and fundraising like hosting the Banff Mountain Film Festival.

“The allocation over the past three years has been $5 million annually, which has been allocated to the teams utilizing a formula that the BC Search and Rescue Association provided on team capabilities and membership,” said Stekelenburg.

“It took a lot of pressure off when we received provincial funding over the last three years.”

He said KSAR would not have been able to purchase its new response vehicle.

“Before we were allocated provincial funding it was always a struggle. We didn’t have a response vehicle, so all search and rescue activities were operated from the tailgate of our personal vehicles,” said Stekelenburg.

In 2016 and 2017, the BC Liberal government announced two one-time grants of $10 million and $5 million for BCSARA to be shared between the 80 SAR groups.

Stekelenburg said BCSARA presented the provincial government with an Alternate Support Model, a long-term $6 million funding model for search and rescue that if approved would have ensured members received the necessary skills training and equipment to respond emergencies.

However, there was nothing in the B.C. Budget 2019 for BCSARA and SAR groups have been left scrambling.

The government funding is used to pay for basic costs such as equipment, insurance, vehicles and building projects.

BCSARA East Kootenay director Ed Ehrler said in the past, groups have spent tens of thousands of hours applying for grants, seeking donations and holding fundraising events.

“That’s a lot of extra work considering the SAR volunteers already give 300,000 hours of their time to B.C.’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.”

He said the funding uncertainty puts the province’s tourism image at risk.

Fernie Search and Rescue manager Simon Piney said their 30 members have to maintain professional certifications in a wide range of skills, including long line rescue, avalanche rescue, swift water rescue, ice rescue and rope rescue.

“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,” he said.

As tourism and backcountry use increased over the years, so has the level of expertise and equipment required for rescues.

“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.– with files from Kimberley Vlasic

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