Terrace Search and Rescue was in the spotlight several times at the end of 2013 and beginning of 2014 with several disappearances on land and water in the space of a few months.
Two searches in particular, missing mushroom pickers Michael Devlin Sabo, 32, and Ike Murray, 26, in the area of Lorne Creek along the Skeena River Sept. 22 and three missing boaters at Frizzell Springs on the Skeena River about 33 km east of Prince Rupert Nov. 10 were notable for the resources and effort devoted by search and rescue volunteers.
In the case of Sabo and Murray, efforts expanded beyond Terrace Search and Rescue volunteers to include family members, members of the public, trained search and rescue volunteers from elsewhere and even local Canadian Rangers.
Murray walked out of the bush but, unfortunately, Sabo had died and the trio at Frizzell Springs were all found deceased in the river.
Even as searchers are concerned about those they are looking for, behind the scenes there are people equally concerned about the welfare of the searchers themselves – search managers look at who to send out, whether or not those people have had experience in dealing with death before, and later, make sure that after a search someone follows up with volunteers to make sure they are OK.
Search functions in B.C. begin with local volunteer groups.
TERRACE Search and Rescue (SAR) is a non-profit, volunteer-based search and rescue organization serving Terrace and the northwest. The service is provided 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.
Terrace SAR teams provide assistance to the RCMP, BC Ambulance Service, BC Coroners Office and the Provincial Emergency Program (PEP) by not just searching for missing persons but also doing water rescues and recoveries, assisting at disaster scenes and providing aid to other communities and SAR teams.
Its members are all volunteers who undergo training in search techniques and in survival skills.
Members will also take part in community events, and present information to the public and offer education programs to schools, youth groups, and others.
As with many other community groups, the level of volunteerism is high and volunteers come from all walks of life, donating hundreds of hours a year to train, to search and to promote the organization.
IN the latest training session, which ran from end of October last year until early February this year in the Terrace area, about 12 people undertook ground search and rescue training, which is the basic course for land-based searches in B.C.
“The last two years we have had larger classes, probably due to the higher profile of SAR because of the Lorne Creek and Whiskey Creek searches,” said trainer Jon Coutts, the latter referring to the search for missing filmmaker Warren Sill near Hazelton in 2012.
The course consists of seven evening classroom sessions, a day in the field practising navigation skills, an overnight survival exercise and a field day practising search techniques.
For the survival exercise, the students spend the night in the woods with only the gear in their day packs – no tents or sleeping bags – which is to prepare them in case they are dropped off by helicopter and they can’t be picked up at the end of the day due to weather conditions, or in case they find a person who is injured and they have to take care of them until they can be evacuated, said Coutts.
“Some characteristics that make a good SAR member are patience, persistence and teamwork,” he said. “Searches can go on for days and there can be a lot of hard work and bushwhacking.”
And the support of family is important for members.
“Often when you get a call it’s in the evening when you’re looking forward to relaxing before bed and suddenly you need to get ready and head out into the woods at night,” said Coutts.
SHERIFF Dwayne Sheppard, who has been involved in SAR since 1998, says the people involved share a unique perspective.
“There is something special about working with people who volunteer their own time and put themselves at risk to help someone they do not know,” he said. “This is a rare attribute which many people in SAR share.”
He began volunteering while he was working as a forest technician – he believed his mapping and compass skills would benefit the group. But now it’s much more than that.
“I enjoy working with the people on the team. They are my second family.”
Over the years, he says he’s come to appreciate the impact SAR makes on people’s lives, especially in bringing closure to families by recovering their lost ones.
BECAUSE of these recovery efforts, search and rescue crews do have access to counselling if needed.
Emergency Management BC (EMBC) has a program called Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), a team of trained volunteers that travels throughout the province to help where and if issues come up, said Terrace Search and Rescue member Dave Jephson.
“So issues would be dealing with lots of dead people. Unfortunately we’re getting too good at that,” he said, adding that 2013 was by far one of the busiest years for searches.
Whenever a SAR team recovers a body or deals with a bad call, the event is discussed with EMBC, which always makes sure to ask if a CISM volunteer is wanted here, said Jephson.
“It’s a great program, very successful,” he said.
Sometimes, like in the case of the three people who went missing at Frizzell Springs, the service isn’t requested because SAR didn’t discover the bodies – in that instance, two were found by the police and the third by the coast guard.
And Terrace SAR has never requested the service since most of the members receive counselling services through their jobs.
“We haven’t [asked for CISM] in Terrace because so many of us belong to different agencies, we kind of have some other resources,” said Jephson. A number of SAR members are firefighters or police officers.
“At some point in time I think what we know is the service is there and available to us so it’s not that we police it on our own, but we spend a lot of time talking to members. If it’s a bad call, we’ll discuss it with members later that day or that night or the next day. I’ll follow up with a phone call to talk to them,” said Jephson.
“Part of the process with CISM is talking through it with peers, people who understand what we’re talking about and we get people to walk through the call or [search] process.”
There’s certain signs to watch for, such as coming back from a rescue and everybody’s quiet, he said.
It’s difficult to know what the trigger is for why a rescue situation bothers rescuers, he added.
They have recovered friends and done CPR on friends and had family members there for a body recovery, said Jephson.
“That’s why you go through it, right, and you talk and don’t want it to weigh on people,” he said.