SAR Teams Adapt to COVID restrictions
Jan 10, 2021

In March of 2020, like the rest of the world, Search and Rescue (SAR) volunteers in British Columbia (BC) were faced with a new challenge: how to continue operating in the setting of a quickly-evolving global pandemic.

British Columbia’s 2500 ground SAR volunteers are used to dealing with injured subjects, but not infectious ones. They are skilled at mitigating risks in technical rescue environments, but a pandemic, where every bystander, contractor, and team member poses a threat, was entirely foreign. 

In BC, ground search and rescue (GSAR) is organized into 79 separate, all-volunteer SAR teams that operate as independent societies and are responsible for all ground and inland water SAR response in the province. These volunteer groups are coordinated and represented by the BC Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA), which interacts with Emergency Manage­ment BC (EMBC), the provincial agency that oversees SAR response in the province. 

Coquitlam SAR members drill for a stretcher evacuation for a simulated suspected COVID-positive subject. (Photo: Mechthild Kellas-Dicks)

In the beginning of the SARS-COV-2 pandemic, safety protocols quickly became urgent for the busy teams near Vancouver, where case numbers were rising fastest. Squamish SAR, having a large number of healthcare professionals on the team, were early to identify the risk. 

As Landon James, a Registered Nurse and Paramedic, and Director of Operations of Squamish SAR, recalls, “We were close to public health information and also monitoring the worldwide situation. A small group of us came together to plan a ‘what if’ ­scenario, what training members would need, and what activity reduction would be appropriate. We very quickly ended training and meetings as the ‘world shut down’ and before much of the public health messaging locally indicated a need to do so.”

The Board of Directors of Squamish SAR turned over operational control of the organization to the SAR Manager group so there was one group making decisions about response capability, PPE, and any ongoing COVID policy recommendations. According to James, “the SAR Managers immediately restricted access to the compound with nobody being allowed to potentially contaminate materials and equipment until we knew what we were dealing with. The philosophy was ‘get strict now and scale back as needed.’ Members fully complied with the direction.”

As teams such as Squamish started establishing policies and practices, others started to ask the difficult questions. How can you maintain ‘social distance’ in helicopters or rescue craft? What PPE is appropriate for the SAR environment? How do surgical masks stand up to rotor wash or in swiftwater? How do you decontaminate when you don’t have access to soap and water? 

For Squamish, it was apparent that information needed to be shared. “Once it became evident that a pandemic was upon us, a couple of our members familiar with the concepts made some simple PPE videos in case we did have a response that required PPE. These were shared virtually through our member system,” says James. 

Coquitlam SAR operates a Marine Rescue Team, with boat operators obtaining professional marine certifications and specialized training to safely conduct tasks in the inland waters of the search area, including sections of the Fraser River and Pitt Lake. Tom Zajac and Cam Girvan are shown here during marine rescue training. Coquitlam Search and Rescue is an all-volunteer SAR team that services the Metro Vancouver suburbs of Coquitlam, Port Moody, Port Coquitlam, Burnaby, New Westminster and surrounding wilderness areas to the North. The team’s technical capabilities include; helicopter long-line, rope rescue, mountain rescue, avalanche and swiftwater rescue. (Photo: Jordan Wycherley)

As individual teams started solving issues independently, it quickly became apparent that a coordinated response across all SAR teams was needed. That task fell to the BCSARA Health and Safety Committee, the provincial group responsible for setting standards and safety protocols in GSAR operations. 

For Dr. Ian MacDonald, BCSARA SAR Safety Support Consultant, the first thing BCSARA had to do was assess the risk. “Our risk assessments led us to believe that the likelihood of contracting COVID from subjects who were lost or injured in the wilderness was relatively low. We were more concerned, and still are, about SAR volunteers inadvertently introducing COVID from the community into their GSAR groups,” he explains.

“During GSAR operations we are often in unavoidably close proximity to one another, such as when we use helicopters, ATVs, Command vehicles, etc., so the Health & Safety Committee developed protocols for all of these situations. We remain cognizant that a subject could potentially have COVID, and we have written protocols and training videos which talk about how to screen for COVID and deal with subjects safely,” says MacDonald.

BCSARA developed safety protocols and guidelines that addressed these concerns. All searchers applied the provincial self-assessment tool prior to responding. Protocols for PPE, hygiene, and decontamination were established. Guidelines were developed on physical distancing and how to mitigate risk when distancing is not practical, such as in helicopters or vehicles, along with establishing a process on how to approach patients and conduct a risk assessment.

One of the strengths of the SAR system is BC is its ability to rapidly scale up a response through the use of mutual aid. It was, and is, critical that all teams be on the same page, so when members arrive from neighbouring teams, the safety practices are consistent and predictable.

Coquitlam SAR members dress in standard COVID PPE during a training drill. (Photo: Photo: Mechthild Kellas-Dicks)
As these safety guidelines were circulating, teams also took stock of their supplies of PPE. Teams had protective gear for usual SAR response, but supplies of respirators, hand sanitizer and surgical masks needed during a droplet-spread pandemic were minimal on some teams. SAR teams were forced to source PPE at the same time the entire world was. 

Dr. Macdonald notes that the big deficiencies for GSAR teams early on were “the same as those experienced by the health care system: lack of gloves, medical grade masks, hand sanitizer and eye protection. Accessing these critical supplies was very frustrating, but there was a real spirit of cooperation amongst teams, with some of the better-supplied teams donating PPE to those in short supply. And then BCSARA was able to source large quantities of gloves, surgical masks and N95 respirators, which really solved the problem.”

The communities also came together with grass roots support as well. Local suppliers who saw a rush on PPE from the general population took notice that important public safety groups such as SAR teams were missing the critical gear to allow them to operate safely. These vendors, rather than capitalizing on sales to the public, chose to hold back their limited supplies and sold to SAR teams, often at reduced prices. 

At the same time, local community groups rapidly approved grants and made donations specifically earmarked to help SAR teams fund their need to acquire PPE. “The PPE supply chain has worked wonderfully: in short order BCSARA was able to secure scarce PPE, establish regional PPE caches and develop protocols for rapid resupply if any team faced critical shortages; to my knowledge, since the supply chain was secured, no GSAR team has had to go offline due to lack of PPE,” says MacDonald. 

While SAR teams were spooling up, a paradoxical conflict was brewing in outdoor recreation areas. The province’s Chief Health Officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, urged people to get outside. “Please, go outside” she urged on April 29th, calling the risk to spread outdoors “infinitesimally small.” 

The quarantined populations of BC were anxious to get back outside during a mild spring. Conversely, park operators and land owners chose to close and restrict access to popular areas. 

On April 8th, BC Parks enacted a system-wide closure “to protect the health and safety of visitors, employees, volunteers and our partners.” BC Hydro, a provincial utility company that operates several recreation sites in the province initially remained open, however the increase in visitor concentration, likely in part due BC Parks closures forced them to close a month later. Recreationalists were being pushed into different, less traveled places.

A socially distant SAR command scene on a multi-day mutual aid search for a missing hiker. (Photo Tom Zajac)

Even after June 1st, when initial restrictions were eased, several park operators reopened – but with trail restrictions and reduced parking capacity. BC Parks implemented a day-use reservation system in the provinces six most popular parks. The result was a continued push of users into less popular areas and unfrequented trails with less infrastructure, less trail maintenance and less user familiarly. 

According to James, Squamish SAR found that, “Closing the parks caused people to find new places, some of which [Squamish SAR] had never even heard of before. When the parks re-opened, the people had already found their new locations so they continued to go to these different places. The biggest change is that the two most popular ‘new’ places have no cell phone coverage and people coming up from the city aren’t used to that.” 

It was a similar scene cross the province. Al Hurley, Search Manager with Coquitlam SAR, found they were “seeing a lot of non-traditional locations for the rescues as people venture further afield to get away from over-crowded regional parks that now have restrictions on hours and the number of people allowed in before a gate is closed.” 
BC SAR teams invest a lot of effort in prevention training, but those messages were harder to get out when people weren’t all starting from the typical trailheads. 

Across the province, outdoor vendors saw an increase in volume of sales of outdoor equipment, and camping reservations quickly sold out. It was clear British Columbians were staying near their homes, but wanting to try new activities and explore new areas. “We definitely had a steep increase in novices, the un-prepared, and the physically unfit going outdoors to escape the lockdown and get as far away from crowds as possible,” acknowledged Hurley. 

This mix of low experience and unusual areas resulted in additional challenges for SAR teams. “Adding to the calls’ complexity is that more people are completely inexperienced and not prepared to travel and survive in more rugged terrain that has fewer services such as trails and cell coverage. This in turn makes our volume of technical rescues rise with the complexity and inaccessibility of the terrain by normal ground response,” explains Hurley. 

Arrowsmith SAR members at the Rope Tech 1 Course. Such Training is critical to keep certification numbers up. (Photo: Dee Colins)

Across the province, volunteer SAR teams have seen numbers spike. The busiest year for Coquitlam SAR saw 52 tasks with 61 operational periods, but they reached that number by September this year, according to Hurley. All signs point to 2020 as a record year for Search and Rescue across British Columbia.

The changes have impacted how responses work. The thoroughness of COVID protocols have caused a general slowdown at all levels of response. The pandemic has also placed challenges on individual volunteers, as “some members have opted not to respond at all for fear of COVID impacting their family and ­personal bubble of contacts,” says Hurley. 

Squamish SAR found working and hiking in a mask to be difficult. They noted it took some time to become comfortable working in PPE. “We haven’t seen a decrease in willingness to respond at all but it is definitely adding a new layer needing to have PPE on. Our organization responds to approximately 95% injured subjects so they all require ‘treatment’ and therefore full PPE,” confirms James. 

BCSARA knew that the real test would be when the big searches came in. SAR teams in BC are all volunteer, which means that the 30-50 volunteers on every team all live in separate ‘social bubbles’ until a task comes in. On a prolonged multi-day mutual aid task, there often are hundreds of volunteers from multiple supporting teams coming from communities across the province. 

On these large searches, members go through a COVID questionnaire screen prior to entering command area. PPE and hygiene stations are ever-present to ensure SAR members have the equipment able to operate safely. A designated Safety Officer ensures compliance with safe practice around the base of operations, and that all field teams are briefed with safe COVID field practices before they go out on task. All in addition to the standard safety briefing required for the risks specific to their operational tasks.

Arrowsmith SAR members load a patient onto their UTV. (Photo: Jennifer Hoard)

Overall, the protocols seem to be working says Dr. MacDonald. “We have a suite of Safety Advisories which cover the vast majority of GSAR operations, and the Health & Safety Committee is not aware of any GSAR volunteers who have contracted COVID-19 from having attended GSAR training or operations.” 

Like all organizations, the COVID policies have had to adapt through experience. “The protocols have been accepted very well, although we did have to do some tweaking over time. For instance, our PPE requirements initially called for wearing GoreTex clothing as a protective barrier, but we soon realized GSAR volunteers would overheat, so we adapted our policies.” Like everywhere, the response to COVID-19 is an ever-evolving process. “The Health and Safety Committee is always open to input with respect to our policies, and some of our COVID Safety Advisories have been fine-tuned as a result of feedback from GSAR members.” 

The challenge going forward will be keeping up with the increase in volume and protocols as COVID continues into 2021. “We are all aware that COVID-fatigue is real,” says Dr. MacDonald. “The Health & Safety Committee realizes this too, and will do its best to ensure all GSAR volunteers continue to follow our policies and procedures.” So far, the processes seem to be working. “In my opinion, members are doing an excellent job of complying with Covid-19 safety protocols. At times, some members forget to wear a mask, but when brought to their attention everyone complies.”

SAR teams are used to challenges and problem solving, and while the initial demands of COVID seemed different, eventually members have realized this is just an adaption. As the pandemic continues into 2021, the volunteers of BC Search and Rescue teams are now prepared and equipped to manage and mitigate this new risk. 
Tom Zajac, a Critical Care Paramedic, is the President and a Search Team Leader with Coquitlam Search and Rescue.