British Columbia

Busy rescuers seek funds for standby pilots, radio link

North Shore Rescue is pushing the provincial government to spend $20 million on a provincewide communications system specifically for rescues, and to chip in more to fund standby positions for pilots and emergency rescue specialists.

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North Shore Rescue is pushing the provincial government to spend $20 million on a provincewide communications system specifically for rescues, and to help fund standby positions for pilots and emergency rescue specialists.

The demand is part of a push by the North Vancouver-based group to reduce the dependence of the search and rescue force on volunteers.

Curtis Jones, who wrote a briefing note for North Shore Rescue, says the number of calls that require timely helicopter access is "pushing the operational envelope of what constitutes volunteer SAR."

North Shore Rescue says it receives 80 to 90 calls a year from various authorities. The calls average around two per week, but some times of the year are much busier than others.

"During the summer we mostly look for missing or injured hikers, and during the winter it’s often skiers and snowboarders. So we consistently receive call-outs throughout the year," the group's website says.

Public funding for public service

The rescue group's spokesman, Tim Jones, hopes public and private partners will come forward to fund a standby technical rescue core team and standby helicopter pilot positions in the high-demand seasons.

North Shore Rescue used a helicopter longline to reach a 27-year-old who was stranded overnight on a mountain north of Coquitlam this summer. (North Shore Rescue)

"There has to be this hybrid model, we have to break this plateau that volunteerism is volunteerism," he said.

Kelsey Wheeler, a pilot with Talon Helicopters, is one of the pilots North Shore Rescue calls in on weekends. The demands this time of year mean he is spending a lot of his time in traffic getting to the airport in Richmond from his home in White Rock.

"I can't remember a long weekend recently where we haven't had a call in the summer," Wheeler said.

Jones says that his group also wants the province to pay $20 million to establish a dedicated rescue radio communication line that currently does not exist provincewide.

North Shore Search and Rescue keeps a cache at a radio repeater station on Cathedral Mountain.

North Shore Rescue built a $1 million radio repeater system for its local North Shore operations, but just to the north in Squamish, nothing exists.

"This is unacceptable," North Shore Rescue wrote in its briefing note. "With the exception of a very small number of very fortunate SAR teams, these other teams should not pay [for], nor can they afford, essential communications systems like this."

North Shore Rescue has around 40 active members involved in an array of positions, including field, search management, communications and public relations.

It does not charge for rescue services, but it does receive a stipend for some services, including the nightly sweeps its members conduct on the Grouse Grind hiking trail.

With files from the CBC's Chad Pawson and Emily Elias