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SYDNEY — It has been over half a century since Cape Breton Search and Rescue was formed and they’re not giving up on one search — for a home.
“We’ve been homeless for 51 years,” said search manager Paul Vienneau.
As a result of not having a home base, the organization's vehicles are at the mercy of the elements, there’s no permanent space for gear or for a pre-search meeting to organize volunteers.
In fact, he said, their vehicles are spread out. The command centre truck, transport bus and trailer are kept at A&P Transmission in Gardiner Mines, a smaller trailer and a sea can for storage are about half a kilometre away.
Vienneau said A&P Transmission has allowed them to park vehicles at its lot since 2007.
“They’ve been very, very, good to us,” he said.
Vienneau said the lack of a home base creates many dilemmas including trying to respond to a search in a snowstorm, faced with the task of getting all their vehicles cleared off first and ready to go.
“Sometimes you have to boost them because the battery drained because of the cold,” he said.
At one point the organization obtained a milk truck and turned it into a command post. In 1999, while heading to a search, the transmission went.
“We had to get it towed to the search,” Vienneau said.
Amanda Donovan, who joined the organization in 2009 and recently took part in her first search in her new role as search manager, said a home base is also important to prepare volunteers. When a search is called, a centralized location for the volunteers to meet has to be chosen.
“We don’t have a central place to gather and roll (out) from,” she said, adding finding a new place for each search and notifying members takes time away from the actual search.
Volunteers keep a gear bag in their vehicles, ready to go at any time. A home base would allow volunteers to go to a locker to retrieve their gear — as firefighters do — and head to a scene from there.
As well Donovan said the seasons takes a toll on their vehicles.
“Over the long term it costs us more with our vehicles,” she said. “They are exposed to all of the elements.”
Cape Breton Search and Rescue did take a look at the former Whitney Pier fire department building but it couldn't accommodate all the vehicles.
Another potential spot is the former Glace Bay police station, which has recently been replaced by a new building.
“It is a potential site but it remains to be seen if there’s space to house our vehicles,” Donovan said.
Cape Breton Search and Rescue was formed in 1969. Prior to its formation, the community responded to search for a father of five and a hunter, who went missing in freezing temperatures in the Cape Breton Highlands. On the fifth day, as the search was about to be called off, a helicopter spotted Billy Antle. The Cape Breton Search and Rescue organization was formed while Antle was still recovering in hospital.
Vienneau said the search team responds to requests from the police. They’ve conducted more than 800 searches over the years, including about 20 off-island.
When a search request comes in they determine the level of urgency. If it’s a hunter or a hiker who was prepared for the weather then they don’t have to rush, especially if conditions — such as daylight — would make it safer for the searchers the following day.
There are three levels of searches — the most urgent are situations in snowstorms and those involving young children and elderly persons.
Over the years the Cape Breton team has conducted searches for everyone from lost tourists to lost hunters, people suffering from autism, Alzheimer's or Down syndrome as well as situations involving both children and adults who have wandered away.
Vienneau said one of the biggest misconceptions regarding a missing person is that you have to wait 24 hours before reporting the situation to police.
“That’s not true, you do not have to wait,” he said.
Since 2012, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality has provided the group with $25,000 for operational purposes only.
The organization also has a building fund account as they attempt to move towards securing a home base. They’ve held related fundraisers at various festivals such as Canada Day. The fundraisers have been halted by the COVID-19 pandemic so they’ve gone in other directions this year, including launching a 50/50 ticket fundraiser that’s currently underway.
“Any tips we get also goes right into the building fund,” Donovan said, estimating they have several thousand dollars at this point.
The cold weather has also caused issues with laptops taking upwards of an hour to become operational.
Donovan said thanks to a significant donation from the 100 Women Who Care group, a new $20,000 computer system was expected to be installed last weekend in the search and rescue command centre.
“With the new system, we will only have to start the generators and push a button, everything is instant,” Vienneau said. “It’s going to enhance everything to do with technology for us.”