Search and rescue groups across B.C. could be forced to resort to bake sales and grant writing to cover their basic costs if provincial funding is not renewed by the end of this month.
In 2016 and 2017, the Liberal government announced two one-time grants of $10 million and $5 million for the BC Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) to be shared between 80 SAR groups.
There were hopes this year’s budget would include a long-term funding model for search and rescue, as proposed by BCSARA in 2015.
However, there was nothing in the B.C. Budget 2019 for BCSARA and SAR groups have been left scrambling with current funding to run out March 31.
The uncertainty comes amid increasing demand for search and rescue services in B.C.
“The 80 SAR groups across the province are now responding to upward of 1,700 incidents every year, which is more ground SAR callouts than in the entire rest of Canada,” said Ed Ehrler, the association’s East Kootenay director and Sparwood Search and Rescue manager.
“All of the ground SAR members in B.C. are volunteers – or unpaid professionals as we like to call them. There are over 2,500 of them and they’re on call 24 hours a day and 365 days a year.”
Ehrler said the teams do much more than find people lost in the wilderness. They also look for missing children or people with dementia, help with local emergencies and provide outdoor safety education.
The government funding is used to pay for basic costs such as equipment, insurance, vehicles and building projects. Ehrler said in the past, groups have spent tens of thousands of hours applying for grants, seeking donations and holding fundraising events.
“That’s a lot of extra work considering the SAR volunteers already give 300,000 hours of their time to B.C.’s SAR program each year,” he said. “And since none of those funding sources are guaranteed, it’s simply not a sustainable way to fund the critical emergency response services needed by so many people every year.”
Funding uncertainty puts tourism image at risk
Fernie Search and Rescue has more than 30 members who must maintain professional certifications in a wide range of skills, including long line rescue, avalanche rescue, swift water rescue, ice rescue and rope rescue.
Manager Simon Piney said these take “phenomenal” amounts of time to maintain.
“When we have to also add to that hundreds and hundreds of hours of writing grants, doing bake sales, lobbying businesses around town to make donations so we can do fundraisers, that’s where we get volunteer burnout,” he said.
As tourism and backcountry use increased over the years, so has the level of expertise and equipment required for rescues.
“The types of incidents have become more complicated and I would say also the expectations are much higher – people are hoping to see a helicopter when they probe their SPOT device, and they’re hoping to see advanced medical support,” said Piney.
If the province does not renew funding, many groups will have to return to grants and fundraising.
“The expectation of the public and our provincial association when our services are required is that we are responding in a manner that is safe for all involved, and that we are competent in the various environments, scenarios, and technical fields that we operate in,” said Sparwood Search and Rescue vice president Andrea Murland.
“That expectation is incompatible with ad hoc funding and it is time for the province to provide long-term, stable funding for the SAR groups in B.C.”
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