April 9, 2020

SAR Volunteers at Risk from COVID-19


Backcountry adventurers who venture out during these days of social distancing, believing they are not putting anyone at risk of contracting COVID-19, are potentially putting Search and Rescue (SAR) teams out of action. A recent incident near Vancouver’s North Shore mountains illustrates this.

A man had gone snowshoeing alone on Brunswick Mountain, high above the Village of Lions Bay, on March 14 and was reported missing on March 17. Using Recco technology, a signal was detected below a fresh avalanche on the mountain, indicating someone was buried beneath the snow.

SAR volunteers were shuttled up to the site via helicopter to begin the labour-intensive process of probing the surface of the snow with long poles for the source of the signal. Altogether there were as many as 20 SAR volunteers from five different SAR teams on the mountain at one time, accompanied by members of the local RCMP detachment. After five days, the man’s body was found.

“Think about that: If any member had any symptoms [of COVID-19], we would have taken down five search-and-rescue teams by responding to that call,” SAR volunteer Maria Masiar told the Toronto Star in an interview. Although the search team members tried to maintain distance from each other, the confines of the helicopter’s passenger cabin meant close contact was inevitable.

Continued excursions into recreational areas favoured by Vancouver-area residents have provoked authorities to close off access to those sites considered potentially high-risk of misadventure, as well as to keep people from ignoring social-distancing guidelines and gathering in groups. Just this week, the British Columbia government closed all provincial parks to minimize access to many of the favoured back-country spots.

During normal times, the North Shore Rescue organization responds to an average of nearly three rescues a week.

Upper photo credit: Talon Helicopters
Lower photo credit: NSR