P.E.I. conference highlights co-operation among search and rescue agencies

Mitch MacDonald comment@theguardian.pe.ca
Published on October 25, 2015

Parachutist Bailey Craig is lowered to the ground with a makeshift pulley by HMCS Queen Charlotte members, from left, Dwayne Milligan, Justin Chiasson and Dave MacPherson in a mock rescue scenario during the 2015 national SARscene conference in Charlottetown on the weekend. Chiasson had climbed nearly 50 feet up the tree to give Craig the pulley before lowering her to safety.


A Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter hovered over an overturned boat in the middle of Charlottetown's harbor Saturday morning.

Canadian Coast Guard vessels were in full force on the water while volunteer search groups looked for survivors on the ground.

RCMP officers, firefighters and other agencies also pitched in to contain crowds of onlookers at Victoria Park, assist searchers and help co-ordinate the rescue.

Fortunately, the scary scenario playing out was a fictional one.

However, the massive mock demonstration also showed a number of Islanders the level of co-operation and inter-operability required for a successful search and rescue mission.

"We need to look at SAR (search and rescue) as ultimately being seamless. We try to work together seamlessly to save lives and protect Canadians," said Graham Newbold, a senior analyst with Canada's National Search and Rescue Secretariat, while in Charlottetown this weekend. "On any given incident, there are multiple agencies involved. Just like we're trying to practice and demonstrate here today."

Co-ordination and communication were key throughout the SARscene 2015 national conference held in P.E.I.

Frances Gertsch, a member of P.E.I. Ground Search and Rescue (GSAR), said the national conference attracted about 375 delegates with some participants coming from as far the U.S., United Kingdom, New Zealand, Germany and Ireland.

"Events like this are about learning from each other, learning best practices and developing skills we call inter-operability, which is the ability for us to work together," said Gertsch. "For example, the P.E.I. GSAR may go to Nova Scotia to help with a search. So how do we work better together?"

While formal sessions were held before and after the weekend, Saturday focused on more hands-on field training.

The morning demonstration, which also saw Parks Canada and Halifax's Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre contribute, later transitioned into a skills competition that afternoon.

Six teams were tested in a number of areas, from observation to first aid, clue searching, compass skills and a rescue demonstration.

"It's a competitive way of practicing skills and sharing information," said Newbold. "They're all demonstrating some of the technology and equipment available with industry members."

While the objective of SAR has never changed, the methods and technology employed by searchers is constantly evolving.

One example of that is the use of unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), which are also commonly referred to as drones.

Two companies demonstrated those devices and their search capabilities on Saturday.

Newbold, who has been involved in search and rescue for nearly 40 years, said modern technology has been both a blessing and a curse for rescuers.

"It's really brought us forward with being able to respond, find and save people in distress," he said. "It's also been a challenge in the sense that people are more likely to go further and take greater risks because they're counting on technology to save them.

"It's both a boon and a problem."

Newbold, who was a military search and rescue pilot before retiring six years ago, also praised the large number of dedicated volunteers who attended the conference.

"Its important to understand everyone here is a professional whether they're paid or unpaid," he said. "They're highly skilled experts in those roles and this is an opportunity for us to share knowledge and get ideas on new ways to do things."