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Houston SAR calls for audit of provincial emergency management decision making

Houston Search and Rescue has sent the following letter to Premier David Eby:

Re: Search and rescue volunteer mistrust of EMCR decision-making

With more than 23 years devoted to search and rescue (SAR) along with serving as a SAR manager for the past two decades, I’ve had the privilege of working alongside many remarkable and dedicated individuals, contribuing to various large-scale searches in northwest B.C.

Unfortunately, practices within EMCR have left many SAR teams with an unsetting uncertainty about the future of volunteerism and our nationally recognized, community-based search and rescue services.


Lack of transparency, arbitrary and undocumented decision-making and pervasive mistrust of EMCR amongst the B.C. volunteer search and rescue (SAR) community has been further compounded by the expanded powers granted to EMCR in the new Emergency and Disaster Management Act (EDMA).

Three years ago, the director of the EMCR SAR unit imposed a moratorium on all new capabilities across the province, affecting all 78 SAR teams and 3,400 volunteers. This decision is not likely public knowledge but has the potential to significantly impact the public.

A capability is a skill set or type of training that allows SAR members to respond to specific types of incidents. An example of this would be a “swift water” rescue in a fast-flowing river – and to respond, the SAR group must be approved to have that capability. This is an appropriate process that ensures the correct training is completed before the group is allowed to conduct these specific types of rescues.

While B.C. communities con3nue to grow and develop, all ability to add new capabilities has been stopped by EMCR for the past three years, despite repeated applications and requests from highly motivated communities and SAR groups. Since various capabilities, such as tracking, swift water operations, flat ice rescue, winter response, avalanche rescue and canine search, require written approval from EMCR before teams can commence training or acquire the necessary equipment, these
communities have been left unprotected despite our best efforts.

In my region alone, this verbal declaration from EMCR has been used to reject several applications from SAR teams over the past three years, citing the moratorium as the sole reason. These rejections include:

  1. Tracking Capability for Fort St. James SAR: Despite the team’s established expertise and membership in the BC Tracking Association, their application was rejected without clear explanation.
  2. Flat Ice Rescue Capability for Bulkley Valley SAR: This well-trained team in swift water rescue faced rejection, despite the practical overlap in equipment and training with their swift water capability and other approved capabilities.
  3. Canine Search Dog Capability: Lastly, Houston SAR, my team, submitted an application for a K9 search dog capability but, as of today, we have not received any response. Notably, there are currently no EMCR-approved search dog teams in B.C. north of Kamloops. K9 teams are exceptionally rare due to the substantial volunteer time they require and the limited working life of the dogs. Despite having a dog that has successfully passed the initial levels of certification and a dedicated handler eager to progress to the next stages of training, our team is in a state of limbo until EMCR approves our application. The imminent risk is that we stand to lose both the dog and the committed handler volunteer if EMCR does not grant approval soon.

Additionally, two other teams in the northern region have expressed interest in acquiring this capability, and we have been informed that these applications are likely to be rejected citing the ongoing “moratorium.” Both the RCMP and the SAR community recognize K9 teams as significant tools for enhancing search and rescue efforts. Given the numerous unsolved missing persons cases in our area, a search dog could potentially make a crucial difference in future outcomes.

We have been made aware that EMCR expects to lift the moratorium in three more years which means Brirish Columbians will have gone six years with teams not being able to improve or add to their capabilities. These capabilities immediately save lives and prevent the pain and anguish of a fatality due to the lack of approval to respond to a specific type of incident.
Despite multiple requests for standard decision documentation, such as a “Decision Briefing Note” or “Reasons for Decision,” EMCR has refused to provide any documentation regarding the moratorium decision. This absence of an open and transparent decision-making process is very concerning and the lack of reasonable disclosure undermines the Province’s own principles of public engagement and transparency, especially for impactful decisions such as a three-year moratorium.

The moratorium decision and other examples (such as the ability to introduce new technology) have caused significant harm, eroding trust and impeding the operational efficiency of SAR teams. The operational consequences include the squandering of volunteer 3me, damage to community trust, hindrance in fundraising efforts, discouragement and resignation of volunteers, and, most importantly, limitations in the ability to conduct effective rescues.

Under the new EDMA, we are uncertain about how these expanded powers will be utilized and if there are mechanisms in place to monitor potential misuse of authority. Our sincere hope is that we can collaboratively work towards altering the provincial EMCR SAR unit’s approach to one that is more enabling and supportive, fostering a true partnership with volunteers rather than a top-down regulatory stance.

For the past 60 years in B.C., SAR groups have always been at the forefront of all new developments in search and rescue because we are the subject matter experts. However, we no longer seem to have the ability to advocate or be consulted in a meaningful way.

Given that the moratorium decision is just one of many examples, we respectfully ask that you consider an audit of the practices of the provincial EMCR SAR unit in its decision-making process and its approach to the search and rescue community.

Thank you for your attention to this ma1er and we sincerely hope we can find a constructive path forward for the 3,400 SAR volunteers dedicated to serving our province. Annually, these volunteers give nearly half a million hours to search and rescue and, on average, save the lives of 1,000 people each year in our province.

Frank McDonald
Houston Search and Rescue

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