British Columbia

'We can't bring everyone home': traumatic calls take mental toll on B.C.'s search-and-rescue teams

As the first responders of the backcountry, search-and-rescue teams are often involved in traumatizing situations — such as the death of three young people at Shannon Falls last week.

Association offers counselling after missions involving recovering bodies, suicides, inconclusive searches

Volunteers with North Shore Rescue conduct a longline rescue off Crown Mountain in 2015. The majority of rescue calls end well but the sheer volume of calls can take a toll on responders. (Farrah Merali/CBC)

As the first responders of the backcountry, search-and-rescue teams are often involved in traumatizing situations — such as the death of three young people at Shannon Falls near Squamish, B.C., last week.

Ryker Gamble, Alexey Lyakh and Megan Scraper died after going over a 30-metre drop at the falls, and what was originally considered a rescue attempt turned into a mission to recover bodies.

Whitney Numan, who works with B.C. Search and Rescue Association, says it's one example of the tragic situations that can have "significant impacts" on the mental health of search-and-rescue volunteers.

"Obviously, search and rescue involves some fairly risky activity," said Numan, the association's program coordinator for critical incident stress management.

"That's the reason we have this program, to help them deal with the situation after they've been involved."

Part of that involves education and awareness about mental health, Numan said, as well as having trained staff on site during and after an incident to debrief and follow up services.

A rescuer scales the mountain face in Shannon Falls Provincial Park to search for the three missing people. (Dillon Hodgin/CBC)

'Call volume has gone up'

The program has been around for about a decade, Numan said, but awareness of the mental health stresses that first responders face is becoming increasingly prevalent, and demand for the services is growing.

Part of that is due to more pressure on search-and-rescue organizations, Numan told Stephen Quinn, host of CBC's The Early Edition.

"The call volume has gone up significantly and that means more exposure," he said.

Last year saw a record number of search and rescue calls in some areas and 2018 doesn't seem to be letting up, with multiple rescues on most weekends.

North Shore Rescue members in training for swift-water rescues. The number of calls has gone up significantly in recent years, says Whitney Numan of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association. (Jeff Davies)

Recovery and rescue missions

The majority of calls end well but, sometimes, search and rescue are called out when it's already too late.

In particular, Numan said, there's been a spike in calls to respond to suicides.

"The locations that people complete suicide has moved into the wilderness, so that has meant that we end up doing more searches and recoveries for that particular type of incident," he said.

Not finding someone can be as bad as recovering a body for first responders, Numan emphasized.

"We've had a number of those fairly big, weeklong searches for people that we've not been able to locate the subject and that too has significant impact on individuals … 'mission failure,' as they think of it," he said.

"Really, they are doing their job and unfortunately we can't bring everybody home."

With files from The Early Edition.

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