Meet the team you hope you’ll never need: Q+A with PEMSAR

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Pemberton Search and Rescue (PEMSAR) might be one of the province’s better-documented search and rescue crews, thanks to Dave Steers’ ever-present camera. That said, it’s made up of some of the most unassuming folk in town, so odds are, you don’t know the half of what they do. We figured we were well overdue to turn the Choose Pemberton  spotlight on our local search and rescue volunteers. (Plus, the only way to get Dave Steers, Choose Pemby’s unofficial photographer, on the record, is to get him to talk about something else. Otherwise, he prefers to let his pictures do the talking.)

What exactly is the Pemberton Search and Rescue? A Secret Society of Superheroes? Club? Civilian branch of the RCMP?

Pemberton SAR is a non profit society.  Pemberton SAR operates under the authority of  EMBC.

How many members do you have?

25. They’re trained in first aid, CPR, high-angle, swiftwater, hover exit and avalanche rescue, and include three trained search managers, two CARDA dog handlers, several level 2 avalanche technicians, and two doctors who teach Wilderness First Aid.

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You are pretty much the unofficial Official Photographer of Pemberton. Do you volunteer on PEMSAR essentially to log all those flying hours, to capture the most wicked aerial shots ever? (‘Fess up.)

Not really, but it sure does work in my favour sometimes…

How long has Pemberton had a Search and Rescue? When did it start? Who started it?

Founded in 1994. Original members were Dave Demidoff, Russell McNolty, Dave Steers, Kevin Sibbald, Doug Tuck and Raine Brooksbank.  Dave Demidoff was in charge in that he was moved from Fire Dept to start a SAR  group in Pemberton as government felt there was need.

How long have you been the man heading it up?

At the first meeting Dave Demidoff told those attending nobody could leave until an executive had been elected.  By default really I was elected president and no one else has ever wanted the job – so I have been president of the society since it began.  From an operational standpoint – day to day ops – it is the search managers who run the show.  Pemberton has three – Russell McNolty and myself have been SAR managers pretty much since beginning and more recently Martin Buchheim has become a SAR manager with our group.

Is it 100% volunteer?

Nobody gets paid anything – this is not paid on call – this is volunteer.

What motivates people to sign on for that commitment? What do they get out of it?

Satisfaction – they can use their skill sets to help people.

What are they asked to put into it?

In terms of time?  Depends on the member but I would guess at least 250 hrs per year.

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What territory do you guys cover? How far will you go to answer a call?

Our territory is massive.  SAR territories follow RCMP boundaries.  Ours begins at the Green River RR crossing to the west and at the north end of Harrison Lake to the east.  We go north at least as far as the Chilcoltins – Spruce Lake, Graveyard Creek and beyond…

We cover Lillooet area as they do not have a SAR group and we also cover Whistler for swift water responses.

What kind of trouble do people typically get into, in this neighbourhood of ours?

There are a myriad of ways people get into trouble. They seem to split into two categories – those who get into situations beyond their ability to cope (either because of poor planning, poor navigation ability etc) and better prepared and experienced people who have an accident out in the boonies.

How do the incident profiles shift from winter to summer? (Which is the busiest time for you? Which is the more stressful?)

Winter tends to be mostly ski and snowmobile and summer mostly hikers – as a generalization.  The interesting thing about this area is that we can be tasked to a swiftwater call in January (as we were last week near Lillooet) and we can respond to an avalanche in June…

Where does your funding come from?

The Village of Pemberton and the SLRD both support Pemberton SAR – the Village with land for our base at the airport and the SLRD for our basic operating expenses.  Any gear that we own has been purchased by fundraising – another big part of the team’s work and the real reason we became a non-profit society – we can issue tax receipts.  The Whistler Blackcomb Foundation has been very good to us over the years and we owe them a debt of gratitude…

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How is jurisdiction divided or shared amongst Search and Rescue and other emergency responders like the Fire Department, paramedics, or RCMP?

SAR is almost always called out by either RCMP or EHS.

If your PEMSAR crew need to call for back-up, who do you call?

Backup in the SAR world is called mutual aid and it’s often used.  Again – last week a call near Lillooet involved some Whistler SAR members whom we called for mutual aid.  Our first call almost always goes to Whistler but we also have a good relationship with the Squamish guys.  In big events we would call our ‘minders’ at EMBC and they would page all the teams in the SW region – we have had searches where numerous SAR group members from the Lower Mainland are involved.

Do you do many joint ops with the Whistler/Squamish SAR peeps?

Yes – most often with Whistler and less often with Squamish but we work well with both groups.

There was a big flurry of media about the vulnerability of Search and Rescue volunteers when the Gilles Blackburn suit was launched. Now that that has settled, what are the ramifications? Was there a positive outcome from that?

The only positive outcome for SAR groups was that it made us look at our exposure as far as liability was concerned and ensure we were as protected as we could be…

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What would Pemberton look like without a Search and Rescue group?

If there was no SAR group in Pemberton Whistler SAR would need to cover off  the area.  They are a very professional group but this would increase their workload considerably…

Why do you guys volunteer  on something as mellow as the Slow Food Cycle? (Is it the waft of natural beef burgers?) What other community involvement or presence do you have?

How can we say no to Anna Helmer?  Don Millerd has been very good to us during the SFC – he donates the money they make selling those delicious burgers to SAR.  We also assist in the Polar Bear Swim, Nimby50, Jeanette’s Mosquito Lake Run, the WB Foundation events…

What does 2013 hold for PEMSAR? 

We hope to run an alpine/mountain rescue course this fall for our members where we hire an instructor and spend a couple of days at a remote cabin practicing alpine rescue techniques…

Do you guys lend your expertise when there are other natural disasters/emergencies, like wildfires, landslides and floods?

We have assisted in big natural disasters but we need to tread carefully.  If we commit all our members to non-SAR activities and then a SAR event comes in, we can’t respond promptly.  In the past we have assisted when the floods hit, we assisted the RCMP issuing evacuation notices up around Goldbridge during the year of the fires and we assisted in the landslide – collecting people up around the event, monitoring the dam, etc…

One of the saddest local searches that I know of is the disappearance of Jonathan Jette and Rachel Bagnall. How hard is it for your crew to have something like this unresolved? Is there anything for everyday adventurers to learn from that story?

The biggest thing we can take away from this is the importance of leaving someone a detailed and accurate plan of your intentions in the backcountry.  What is your route going to be?  What do you have with you?  And critically – when are you expected out.  These details are often vague or incorrect when offered at the beginning of a search.  A written pre -plan left with a trusted friend who is also going to be the one to call for assistance if you don’t come out when you say you will is absolutely critical.

There is nothing that matches the exhileration of finally finding a subject the team has been searching for day after day.   If we extend this, it also means there is nothing that matches the difficulty of walking away from a rescue or search that hasn’t ended happily.  The Jette search is a good example but there are others.  A little girl was swept over Nairn Falls many years ago.  We never found her.  We never found the two men that were washed away when the Rutherford bridge washed out.

Some of our members were on the search in Squamish that yielded nothing which happened just before the Jette/Bagnall search.  Two searches like that in a row are difficult.

We revisit those regularly – the ‘unsolved’ tasks remain open forever…

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  1. […] adventuring, even on a sunny afternoon jaunt from your car… Respect the Mountains.  As our local Search and Rescue boss says, “There are a myriad of ways people get into trouble […]



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