COVID-19 is making search and rescue more challenging than ever

Published: April 15, 2020

North Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada - Feb 17, 2020: North Shore Search and Rescue are rescuing a man skier with a broken leg in the backcountry of Seymour Mountain with a helicopter in winter. Photo by EB Adventure Photography/Shutterstock

On March 19, a major search and rescue effort involving several teams was launched. A 37-year-old snowshoer had gone missing on Hat Mountain in Lions Bay, B.C., five days earlier.

Using avalanche search dogs and RECCO technology—detectors or reflectors often sewn into ski clothes to help rescuers find avalanche victims or locate missing individuals—the Lions Bay Search and Rescue (SAR) team successfully identified the man’s general location.

“After they got a strong hit using the RECCO, they called me,” says Al Hurley, the manager of Coquitlam Search and Rescue. “After I got off the phone, some of the managers and I really started thinking about whether it was a good idea and whether we could [send members].”

Unfortunately, the man was suspected to have gone missing at the site of a recent avalanche. These factors indicated a  “very, very high” likelihood that the man was dead, says Hurley.

“If there had been any indications he hadn’t been in the slider, we probably would have put people out to broaden the search, but everything indicated he was,” Hurley says. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s those kinds of decisions we have to make. We won’t risk our life for a body.”

Hurley said the decision not to join the search was also made, in part, due to the added risk of COVID-19 exposure. “There’s a sort of tug between loyalty, safety, and keeping your own family safe.”

“Everybody fights the desire to go and help while also knowing that going might put yourself in harm’s way,” says Hurley. “This particular situation would have taken a lot of manpower. We just couldn’t afford the risk.”

Teams located his body on March 21, a week after the man was declared missing and air and ground searches were deployed.

The pandemic poses several other issues for essential services. On March 31, Avalanche Canada announced they would no longer be able to release updates because every agency that regularly issues public avalanche forecasts in Canada discontinued the service. As a result, snowshoers and mountain hikers no longer have access to this information prior to heading into the wilderness, which carries a bigger risk, especially as the weather begins to warm.

“When it heats up outside, the snowpack and avalanches start to release,” says Dwight Yochim, the senior manager of the BCSARA. “This time of year, the snow is heavier, so it’s just not the time to push your luck.”

SAR managers are also appealing to the public, asking people to be conscientious in an effort to minimize the need for search and rescue as Canada navigates the pandemic.

Yochim also says hiking and mountain biking are further complicated by COVID-19. “Because we’re in that shoulder season, the mountain bikes are coming out, and unfortunately, with mountain bikes, you get a lot of chest injuries,” he says. “You don’t want to have to deal with a chest injury in a pandemic—they often cause heavy breathing, which would put teams at greater risk [for exposure].”

Despite a recent decrease in call volumes, Yochim says BCSARA is expecting chest injury calls to increase as the seasons change and the weather improves. “Our biggest concern right now is that people can be asymptomatic and could actually be carrying the virus, but not know.”

In response to the pandemic, the BCSARA released several new guidelines (these are constantly changing as more information becomes available). The guidelines include wearing the proper PPE and, instead of deploying the entire team, tactically picking individuals for a successful rescue to minimize the number of people involved. When approaching an injured individual, members are also advised to ask COVID-related questions and designate one individual who, wearing PPE, would approach and assess the patient’s injuries.

Technical rescue teams (marine and helicopter rescue) are also ramping up in an attempt to minimize exposure. While only 11 of the 79 SAR teams have helicopter certifications, provincial leaders have advised teams to use helicopters to transport patients. Instead of using a portable stretcher, helicopter rescue teams have been instructed to transport the individual on a 200 ft line beneath the aircraft to the nearest ambulance to minimize a team’s direct exposure to a patient who may be COVID-19 positive. “We are being as cautious as we can be to protect our teams,” says Yochim.

Search and Rescue teams in B.C. are completely volunteer-based. The British Columbia Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) represents 79 ground search and rescue groups across the province and hosts about 2,500 unpaid professional volunteers who average a total of 1,700 call responses a year.

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