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North Shore Rescue calls out province for hampering night rescues

North Shore Rescue is working with one hand tied behind their back, the team's leader says
night-flying-nsr web
North Shore Rescue members conduct a night search aboard a Talon Helicopter, Jan 14, 2021.

North Shore Rescue’s leader says it’s only a matter of time before someone dies needlessly in the backcountry because provincial bureaucrats are preventing the team from doing their job.

Since 2020, the team has had approval from Transport Canada to fly after dark with Talon Helicopters, using night vision goggles to search for lost and injured people. But despite years of training, certification and lobbying, Emergency Management B.C. will not permit North Shore Rescue to use Talon’s hoist system at night.

It means search managers must either send ground teams in through treacherous terrain in darkness, or wait until morning.

“Numerous times, we've been in this situation where we could save a life by contravening the policy, or we can follow this rule and fly away and leave someone to die,” said Mike Danks. “It’s exposing a lot of people to risk when the reality is, we could do this job with far less people way more efficiently by using a hoist.”

When it is a life-and-death situation and a helicopter must be used to quickly extract someone at night, the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria may send in a CH-149 Cormorant helicopter from Canadian Forces Base Comox. That’s what happened on Sept. 27 when a man found himself injured and stuck on Crown Mountain.

But the Cormorant is not the right tool for the job, Danks said, with its massive rotors creating havoc for everyone below.

“The downwash from that aircraft is insane. It's not suitable for mountainous terrain, whatsoever. It's not what it's designed for,” he said. “[The hoist] would have been the ideal tool. This would have got this gentleman out in a much more safe and efficient manner. But again, because of some unwritten rule and fear, we're not allowed to use the tool.”

Talon Helicopter president Peter Murray said he’s personally offered to take EMBC staff up for a night flight to demonstrate what his pilots can do, but they haven’t taken him up on the invite.

“We have been unable to determine where they get their idea that something is risky. … They don't have any expertise in this field,” he said. “Transport Canada has all the experts. They've deemed it safe. I think it's absolutely absurd that the provincial government bureaucrats can override something that Transport Canada deemed safe.”

North Vancouver-Lonsdale NDP MLA Bowinn Ma arranged for Danks to meet with the higher-ups in EMBC. When they last discussed the matter, on May 13, EMBC told Danks they’d have a response within the coming weeks. Danks was hoping to have approval before fall when earlier sunsets greatly increase the risk for subjects and rescuers alike. But it’s been five months of “crickets” since, he said.

“Absolutely nothing,” Danks said. “This is a typical response from EMBC. What they do is they bog you down in paperwork, or in layers of process to go through and then they just never action it.”

Having to wage an endless lobbying campaign on top of their ever-increasing rescue commitments, day jobs, and family lives has been dispiriting, Danks said, and it is impacting the morale of the team’s members.

“There will be a point where the volunteers break, because they are so frustrated with not being supported and we're getting to that breaking point,” he said. “And we need the community to rally and support us and get some action out of the EMBC because the time is now.”

It should also come as an insult to North Shore Rescue’s donors, large and small, who have covered all of the costs to train and certify the rescuers for night operations, including using the hoist.

“We're putting everything into this because we know it is the future. It is safer for our members and it's safer for the people that we rescue. There's no question. We just need the government to finally support us as volunteers,” he said.

In response to a request for comment, Emergency Management B.C. issued a statement saying night vision rescues are still being evaluated as a pilot project.

“Ground search and rescue volunteers in British Columbia are among the best in the world, and the province is committed to supporting their invaluable work. Ensuring that search and rescue volunteers return home safely after every mission is the province's primary goal and ensures the viability of the GSAR program across B.C.,” it read. “EMBC continues to assess what operations are appropriate for volunteers to undertake. Based on these assessments, the program may be expanded to additional operations in the future.”