JOE SPEARS's picture
Searching for GSAR Jurisdiction
Posted on Oct 26, 2020

Recent events have shone a light on some of the complexities related to SAR in Canada. In British Columbia, an ongoing Mountain and Ground Search operation is highlighting gaps in the existing GSAR system.

Just before Thanksgiving, Jordan Naterer, a 25 year old Vancouver resident, went on a solo overnight hike in the Lightning Lakes area of Manning Provincial Park, east of Chilliwack along Crowsnest Highway, just a few kilometres from the U.S border. His car has since been located parked in the area. Naterer is still missing and believed to have hiked the Frosty Mountain Trail.

In this particular case, the Vancouver Police Department, which holds jurisdiction because they have classified it as a missing person's case, made it clear they are not going to call in Federal air assets when it called off the search. They repeated their position on Friday.

After the search was first terminated by the Vancouver Police Department, the family sought the assistance of federal SAR assets, which could add powerful sensor capabilities to the search in Manning Provincial Park, which straddles the U.S. border.

Using Go-Fund-Me resources, the Naterer family continued the search using all of the resources they could muster. In an open email, the family explained they are "grateful for all of the financial support that we have received to date to continue searching for Jordan. Using these funds, we have hired a number of private companies with helicopters, ground search and rescue teams, and drones. We’ll continue directing the funds there.that had included 7 different search teams, 3 helicopters, dogs, drones, thermal imaging cameras and volunteers. These teams went into areas that were not covered (or not checked enough on the ground) by the police SAR team, in our opinion. For example, today and tomorrow, helicopter and ground teams are going south across the US border. Manning Park is located at the border and cameras at cross-points have not been working over the past few weeks. We’re searching every conceivable or probable area, but the area involved is large, some areas are very hard to access, air search technology is limited, and weather has not been cooperating."

The Prime Minister understands the issue, as his late brother was killed in an avalanche in mountains of British Columbia, but has indicated that he could do little to assist, saying all he could do “is nudge things along.” This is an unbelievable state of affairs for a frantic family.

Acting on new tips and external pressure, the search has briefly resumed by the Vancouver Police Department. Federal air assets would prove invaluable in the search because of the broad spectrum analysis that can be provided to search managers. Yet this critical assistance has been waived off by the Vancouver Police Department as unnecessary, but refuse to explain their reasoning.

Despite indications that the VPD police would continue searching, the Naterer family and friends did not see them on Saturday or Sunday, even though the weather was clear. "We have struggled in dealing with the police department," notes Greg Naterer, the missing man's father.

VPD have taken a very brittle and rigid position as the lead on this Ground SAR (GSAR) mission, and have undertaken a missing persons investigation. The basis of this remains somewhat unclear but appears to be using general criminal law powers of the province to maintain jurisdiction.

The RCMP is the local police force of jurisdiction in Manning Park, and lead agency for GSAR, utilizing skilled paid and non-paid SAR professionals. They are very experienced in conducting Mountain SAR operations, often assisting the Warden Service of Parks Canada when an incident occurs in a National Park. RCMP search managers and RCMP E-Divison Leaders understand that SAR is a team effort and work with the Province of British Columbia and use federal SAR assets on a regular basis.

The lack of an all-in coordinated search effort for Jordan Naterer exemplifies why SAR resources jurisdictions and protocols must be re-examined in a national context without delay.

In Newfoundland, the long-awaited Burton Winters Inquiry will soon begin to examine the issues surrounding search and rescue. The inquiry emerged from the Burton Winters case, in which a young teenager passed away on the ice outside Makkovik. The 14-year-old boy left his snowmobile after it got stuck and walked 19 kilometres before succumbing to the conditions.”

“Search-and-rescue teams didn't reach him in time, and now there will be an inquiry that will, in part, look at the reasons they didn't save Burton in 2012.”

The inquiry is being led by retired Provincial Court judge, James Igloliorte of Hopedale Newfoundland. More details are expected to be released soon, once the terms of reference have been drafted. The inquiry is expected to last less than six months.

Intended as an overarching look at search-and-rescue resources in Newfoundland and Labrador, it will no doubt have implications on the rest of Canada with its remote regions, coastal waters, and mountainous terrain.

The present state of SAR is a web of jurisdictions that professionals make work on a daily basis. The Canadian SAR community takes a functional approach by the lead agencies. Both marine and aviation searches are considered a federal responsibility and the lead minister is Minister of National Defence. Operationally, this work is developed by the officer commanding the joint rescue coordination centre (JRRC), who reports to the SAR SRR Commander. For example, GSAR is considered a police responsibility under the missing persons provisions of the general criminal law power within the province. There is no specific statutory regime in place. It is simply a matter of policy in each province, and there are differences as to how that is administered. In Canada’s National Park, Parks Canada is a lead agency on GSAR.

As climate change continues, we are seeing more and more GSAR incidents and as ecotourism develops, we are going to see more and more need for search and rescue capability in wilderness backcountry areas including along the coasts. As Canada becomes more and more urbanized, with populations looking to "get back to nature," the importance of both fixed and rotary wing SAR is becoming evident.

The Royal Canadian Air Force has developed a well-oiled search and rescue capability to assist the civilian world. It is a no-fail mission. With Beechcraft King Air surveillance aircraft being managed in a joint arrangement with PAL Aerospace, we have a great deal of capability when combined with rotary wing Cormorant helicopters. In addition, PAL Aerospace operates a special mission capability that is also tasked as a SAR asset by the JRCC.

The King Air aircraft is a powerful surveillance platform that has forward-looking radar as well as a Sapphire III FLIR camera that can utilize a variety of imagery new low-light cameras. Most importantly, the data collection sensor suite has powerful data fusion capability that can be utilized for the rapid painting of land terrain and has a proven track record in search and rescue.

The fundamental basis of search and rescue and marine response is a quick surge that can make use of all available assets. Our present search and rescue regime in Canada is clearly broken when our Prime Minister is not able to assist a family requesting federal SAR air assets and is blocked by a local police force (in this case, Vancouver Police Department operating as the lead agency outside their municipal boundaries in the mountains of British Columbia).

Ironically, federal air assets are a free service to the local searchers. Cooperatively working to provide the best possible aviation surveillance assets to an ongoing active search should be everyone's goal. The Vancouver police remain adamant that they will not use federal SAR air assets. This rigid and non-transparent approach, when lives hang in the balance, makes no sense.

This state of affairs in Mountain and GSAR needs immediate attention. Canada must do better.

– Joe Spears has been involved in GSAR with Canadian Wildlife Service and Canada's National Parks. Joe has undertaken work for the NSS on Arctic SAR.