By Chris Rowthorn
The COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges to first responders and Salt Spring Island Search and Rescue (SSI SAR) is no exception.
The team has worked hard since the earliest days of the pandemic to adapt their procedures, training techniques, and rescue methods to this new situation.
As you might expect, the first concern for the team was personal protective equipment.
“We were fortunate enough to have a good stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE),” said SSI SAR president Jason Grindler. “The only thing we were missing was face shields.”
Fortunately, the island stepped up.
“A local group of 3D printers created and 3D-printed some reusable face shields,” Grindler said.
In addition, another Salt Spring business stepped in to produce another much-needed product.
“The local distillery, Salt Spring Shine, was very generous in terms of donating some hand sanitizer,” he noted.
With PPE and sanitizer in place, the team was ready to establish protocols to use them effectively to keep members and subjects safe.
“Over the time that COVID has developed, we’ve had to institute a screening program every time we get together,” said SSI SAR training manager Zeke Blazecka. “We sanitize ourselves, the equipment, the vehicles, things that we never did before. It’s not complicated, but I suppose it slows down our response time a bit. But it’s necessary.”
Grindler was extremely well situated to help establish new safety procedures, since he works as a BC Ambulance Service paramedic, which provided rich information on best practices.
“Being able to take some of that information and tailor it to a ground search perspective was very helpful in terms of not reinventing the wheel,” he said. “Using best medical practices from an organization that does 500,000 medical calls a year in the province of B.C. was really helpful.”
Early in the pandemic, Grindler teamed up with SSI SAR members Mike Cotton and Alan Bibby to produce a short video on the proper procedure for donning and doffing PPE, which is vitally important when dealing with a potentially COVID-positive subject. In addition to island members, the video was widely viewed by other provincial SAR teams and even mentioned in one of the provincial SAR safety committee bulletins.
A big part of SAR involves training new members and keeping skills current for existing members. The team adopted mandatory mask use early on and continued to train in person, usually outside, until provincial health regulations put a stop to such meetings. Following that, the team did what half the world seems to have done: moved to video conferencing. Like everyone else in this brave new digital world, the team encountered the usual problems of holding meetings online.
“Video conferencing, while it can be beneficial, has lots of downsides,” Grindler said. “It’s really challenging to make sure everyone feels involved and engaged. So we’ve switched to smaller meetings, starting with big general meetings, then moving to smaller six-person meetings.”
Amazingly, despite the pandemic, SSI SAR was able to train a new group of five members last year and is set to graduate another group this year.
“Our organization is getting stronger,” Blazecka said. “We’ve never had as many members as this in the 12 years that I’ve been involved. People really want to contribute to society.”
But what about the actual work of search and rescue teams: finding lost people? The experience of SSI SAR sheds some interesting light on the pandemic and how Salt Spring has fared. While most search and rescue teams in the province have become busier, there have been few on-island searches.
Grindler observes: “Interestingly enough, we’re one of the few groups in the province that actually had a decrease in the number of incidents in 2020. Most SAR groups saw an exponential increase in calls, and that was a result of more people going into the wilderness to escape the COVID doldrums. And that resulted in a significant increase in the number of rescues. And that trend continues.”
SSI SAR often joins search and rescue groups on Vancouver Island and in other parts of the province to offer “mutual aid” on searches requiring larger teams. While there have been only two on-island searches since the start of the pandemic, local members have gone off island to participate in six mutual aid missions.
“We had a mutual aid call to assist the Saanich Peninsula Emergency Measures Organization and we had 12 people out. We’ve never had 12 people out on a single day for a mutual aid call before,” said Blazecka.
Of course, like everyone else, members of SSI SAR are eager for a return to normalcy, when they can meet their teammates and work together to hone their skills.
“As soon as we are able to train in person again, it’s going to make a huge difference to how we can maintain all our competencies,” Grindler said. “It’s the hands-on group training that makes all the difference.”
Being intimately involved with health issues through his work with both BC Ambulance and Salt Spring Search and Rescue, Grindler is keenly aware of the deep and potentially long-term effects of the pandemic.
“We’re all kind of going through this in very similar but different ways. When we can come together and have a debriefing, then we can get back and speak about our experiences and find a way to move forward and learn all the amazing lessons that we’ve learned throughout the pandemic. We can get stronger from this and focus on all positives and all the lessons learned. And support for each other is a huge part of this.”
The writer is a member of SSI SAR.