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New SAR funding a good start

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Eighteen million square kilometres.

The longest coastline in the world.

And a population, that in general, loves going outside, with the majority of us enjoying all the snow sliding sports, hiking, camping and more in our great outdoors.

That's a lot of people across a huge nation.

Here in B.C., our "Super Natural" province attracted $18.4 billion in revenue from its visitors, which translates into $1.2 billion in tax for the province—and you can bet that many of these visitors were doing activities in our outdoors, and some of them needed rescue.

These are just a few statistics to get you thinking about the context for discussions search-and-rescue (SAR) stakeholders are having right now.

Consider also how these organizations have evolved from the civil defence days of the 1950s to today, where in B.C., 2,500 SAR members are involved in over 1,600 call-outs annually (more than the rest of Canada combined). In 1991 incident call-outs were at only 400—that's a 25-per-cent growth in less than three decades in B.C.

The growing busyness of our SAR organizations has led to predictable issues: A lot more paperwork for them, an incessant need to search for funds for their operations and the need to train at a higher and higher level.

The downward pressure on B.C.'s 80 SAR groups has been reaching critical status for about the last decade, with lead agency BC Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) finally managing to get government's attention when a SAR volunteer died during a swift rescue event in 2012, and when SAR volunteers became so concerned in 2014 about their personal liability if rescues went wrong that many considered giving up their service.

Something had to change.

BCSARA undertook some game-changing research and asked the government to consider changing the model for how search and rescue is funded in the province, which in turn would help with the almost crippling level of paperwork most SARs have to do, as well as help with equipment purchases and training.

A 2015 report by BCSARA estimates that right now $1.65 million is needed annually for training, $800,000 is needed for protective equipment costs, licensing and insurance is about $400,000 and radio licensing is about $75,000. Another $1.08 million is needed for other support funding for things such as critical incident stress management and core training. In all, BCSARA calculates it needs a maximum of $12.7 million.

Last weekend, we saw the NDP announce $18.6 million in funding across three years for B.C.'s SAR groups.

It came not a moment too soon, as it is likely that search-and-rescue volunteers were chaffing at being left out of the recently released provincial budget despite their lead organization being in discussions on the topic with the government.

When you consider, said BCSARA, that it has been estimated that the volunteer time on response, based on a RCMP constable's wages would exceed $20,000,000—$50,000,000 if you include training and administration—adopting a new funding model is a good return on investment.

This new funding is a great start in supporting organizations that ski resorts like Whistler have become reliant on to rescue its visitors and residents alike. Covering the period between March 1, 2018 and March 1, 2019, Whistler SAR crews mobilized 59 times, up slightly from the 56 mobilizations the previous year. Of those responses, 33 took place in the summer, and 32 were in the winter months.

But what is truly needed is what BCSARA is pushing for—a new funding model where a Search and Rescue Fund is established in legislation, and into which funding flows from various sources, and from which a board oversees the distribution of the funds.

Something like this operates in Colorado (www.colorado.gov/pacific/dola/search-and-rescue-fund) and here in B.C. we have the Habitat Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF), established under the Wildlife Act that receives revenue collected from surcharges on hunting, fishing and other licenses.

Monies within the SAR Fund would be distributed to SAR groups using a formula based on the type of response capability (search, swiftwater, rope, avalanche) recognizing the training, equipment and other costs associated with maintaining that service. A set amount would be provided each fiscal year to pay insurance and licensing fees, and for training upon receipt of training plan.

There is much more to the plan (www.bcsara.com/projects/support-model), including possible sources of funding, which could come from small surcharges added to selected fees, licenses or types of registrations (think ATVs).

Clearly, there is still much work to do but it looks like our SAR volunteers and their leadership are finally at the table.

Here's hoping our elected leaders are listening.

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