Search and Rescue teams debate merits of new funding proposal.
By James Whitehead
Rebecca Gross was in pain. After hiking for over three hours, a small rash on the Quest student’s arm had spread across her entire upper body. She described the feeling by saying, “my arms felt like they were on fire.” Rebecca hiked the remaining two hours with the rest of the Quest University Adventure Club before soaking her arms immediately in the frigid glacial water of Lake Lovely Water near Squamish, BC.
Trip leaders Eric De Paoli and Forrest Ryerson were concerned about an adverse reaction and decided to call Search and Rescue. After locating an area with cell phone reception, De Paoli called 911, which put him in contact with Search and Rescue (SAR).
Before long, Gross heard the sound of a helicopter approaching. When the helicopter arrived—about a half hour after the call, she was given a medical examination before being flown to the Squamish airstrip, where she was met by an ambulance. Once at the hospital, the reaction was controlled. The cause was never determined.
Had Search and Rescue not been available, Gross would have been forced to hike down to the trailhead in the dark. She would then have been stranded on the shores of the Squamish River. This process would have been dangerous and incredibly painful in her condition.
Search and Rescue in BC is currently comprised exclusively of professional volunteers. There are currently over 2,500 active volunteers who are part of 80 different crews in the province. These teams respond to nearly 1,400 callouts each year—a number that is rapidly increasing.
As the number of new backcountry users in British Columbia continues to grow, Search and Rescue teams are finding themselves in an increasingly unstable position in regards to funding for training and equipment purchases. In light of this, the BC Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) is proposing a new funding model which would centralise funding for Search and Rescue teams within a single foundation that would distribute funding to teams from a single source. While many are in support of the model, there are unanswered questions about its potential impact on British Columbia’s SAR community.
The proposed funding model—called the Alternate Support Model (ASM)—would restructure the funding for Search and Rescue training and support. This would involve taking government funding and directing it through a new foundation which would supply Search and Rescue teams through grants and annual funding. This foundation would be staffed by Search and Rescue personnel and representatives of the BC government.
According to BCSARA treasurer and lead author of the proposal, Jim McAllister, the proposal was designed to ensure a more consistent stream of funding and to reduce the administrative burden on teams.
McAllister has been involved in SAR since 1977, and worked on three different teams across the province before becoming the SAR specialist for the BC government. Since he retired from government work, McAllister spearheaded the new proposal and works as the Director of the BCSARA.
Photo by Michael Coyle
Currently, all callout related costs for SAR teams are covered by Emergency Management BC (EMBC) which is an organisation within the Ministry of Justice. Training and equipment costs are funded separately through a wide range of grants and fundraising efforts.
EMBC reimburses volunteers and SAR teams for all costs including transport, meal costs, helicopter flight time and any others costs accrued in the operation. This totals nearly $3.5 million each year between response reimbursement of volunteers and other costs such as helicopter flight time. There has been widespread support for this reimbursement, as it is consistent and guaranteed. Longtime SAR volunteer and treasurer Ron Royston described this funding as “work[ing] exceedingly well.”
The major issue facing Search and Rescue teams around the province is the funding of training, equipment, insurance and other costs which do not fall under the response reimbursement criteria from EMBC. EMBC funds $250,000 in support costs, but this only covers a small fraction of the additional funding needed. Other expenditures are currently funded through a wide variety of sources, the largest of which is the Community Gaming Grants, also managed by the province.
The Community Gaming Grants use profits collected from gambling revenue to fund “the needs of a wide variety of non-profit organizations throughout British Columbia.” More than half of the crews in BC relied on this fund, which provided $2.3 million to various SAR crews in the past year. This accounts for over 28 per cent of the total SAR funding. Every year, crews must reapply for this grant which is often essential to their survival.
“The major problem with this is that it is not a stable funding source,” said Michael Coyle. Coyle, a long-time volunteer and manager for the Coquitlam Search and Rescue, said the regulations surrounding the lottery funds mean that “crews must spend all of their funding each year. This creates a bit of a boom and bust,” where teams are either forced to run within a very tight budget or spend money on unnecessary purchases in order to be eligible for the grant in the coming year.
In 2012, Whistler Search and Rescue saved a significant portion of their grant, in case grants or other fundraising fell short in the coming years. This led to their gaming funding not being renewed in 2013. This uncertain funding structure, Coyle argues, hinders long term planning and restricts the ability to plan long term training and equipment purchases.
According to McAllister, this happens quite often because crews either try to save some of their grant money or file inadequate grant applications.
Ron Royston, treasurer of North Shore Rescue (NSR) and 40 year SAR volunteer suggests that this model is somewhat different for crews which are called out more often. “[NSR] require[s] more than any other team in the province.” As gaming money is capped at $100,000, NSR has agreements with all three municipal governments in their district (North, West and Metro Vancouver) and receives contributions from numerous businesses in the region. According to Royston, “some charities also donate part of their gaming funds to [NSR].” Aside from this, NSR makes up the rest of their funding through private donations and fundraisers.
Royston is concerned the proposal may not change the amount of funding that NSR receives and instead could “create more headache” with an extra level of governance.
Beyond gaming funds (which are capped at $100,000 for community organisations), crews must fundraise independently. This is often done through a mix of agreements with municipal governments, fundraisers and donations from both businesses and individuals.
While the ASM aims to provide more funding to crews and simplify the application process, certain crews would likely still have to fundraise to a certain extent.
The Alternate Support Model proposal has been under development for the past three years. The ASM will be the fourth proposal submitted to the BC government since 1995 with the goal of changing the funding structure for SAR crews in the province. “We have tried many times to approach government to change the funding and structure for SAR programs,” said McAllister.
McAllister recounted the first two attempts to change the funding model in 1995 and 2003. The proposals were submitted to government and accepted; however, neither was acted upon. In 2010, McAllister and BCSARA submitted another proposal. This was the day before a changing of ministers, and in the confusion the proposal was never read.
To develop this current proposal, McAllister examined the models used in in some US states and for other programs in BC, eventually imitating the model used by the BC Habitat Conservation Trust Fund (HCTF). The HCTF uses small surcharges on fishing, hunting, and guiding licences to fund a wide variety of conservation projects. These surcharges make up nearly 85 per cent of the funding for HCTF.
Rappelling to a rescue near Pemberton BC
Photo by Michael Coyle.
The new proposal lists three options for levels of provincial funding between $4.3 and $9.2 million per year. The third and most expensive option includes response reimbursement which is left to the province in the other two proposals. Only the first, cheapest option would still involve gaming funds, and only for capital replacement.
The first proposal to restructure SAR funding was submitted in 1995. It suggested adding surcharges on hunting and fishing licences, skiing lift tickets, provincial park camping and off-road vehicle registration to pay for SAR. These surcharges were unpopular with a number of industries and groups. While they were discussed in the proposal, it is unlikely that the surcharges would play a role in the structure of a new model.
The proposal also discusses charging agencies like the RCMP and Coroner a fee for service. The proposal goes on to state that “it is also likely that in some cases a timely response would not be initiated if the local office [or] ministry did not have the funds in their operating budget.”
Other ideas include charging rescued subjects for air transport and creating SAR support cards which would be sold online and by mail. According to the proposal, both these ideas would have a relatively limited impact.
A final idea which is often discussed is to charge subjects for their rescue. This is almost universally disliked by SAR crews because it could encourage people to not call when they need help and put rescuers in more danger due to calls being more urgent. When asked if a rescue charge would have impacted Gross’s use of SAR, she said it would have discouraged her to call for help when she needed it and said, “I think that it should be provided”.
The proposed ASM does not have a confirmed source for the funding. While the foundation would manage and distribute the funds, there is no governmental body which has agreed to foot the bill. According to McAllister, it is something that will be discussed with the government when the proposal is submitted.
Currently, a draft of the proposal is being discussed among crews. While most teams agree that a change in funding structure would be an improvement, there is some uncertainty of the details of the proposal.
The proposal is vague on the specifics of the model. There is no single funding source suggested, and little information is available about how the foundation would be structured and how the money distributed.
Coyle suggested that within the SAR community “there is a lot of uncertainty” about the proposal and the way the organisation would be structured. While Coyle does have concerns about the potential of less money making it to SAR crews, he hopes for more stability and an increase in funding from the new proposal.
The concerns about a potential decrease in funding are in part due to the foundation hiring paid employees which would take from the pool of money available to SAR crews.
A decrease in funding is a major concern for Royston of NSR who suggested “the major thing [NSR] needs is more funding.”
While NSR has not provided an official response to the proposal, they did release a statement earlier this year which suggested that it is “a one-size-fits-all solution, and may be more suitable for teams with a lower call volume.” It is understandable that NSR could be skeptical of this as they currently fundraise for 65 per cent of their budget.
McAllister does not think these concerns are justified. He claims “there will be no negative impacts for the teams.” Later McAllister added that he had met with NSR to discuss their concerns about the proposal.
In theory, should the proposal be accepted and implemented in its entirety, it would signal an increase in overall SAR funding across the province. But the challenge of the implementation, structure and distribution of the funds is an important factor yet to be fully understood.
BCSARA is currently accepting feedback from various SAR teams on their proposal and hopes to submit it to the Ministry of Justice by the end of November. From there, the proposal will have to work its way through government and the details involving a potential source for funding will have to be confirmed. Association President Chris Kelly hopes that this new model could be implemented in the next year, but expects it to take closer to two years.
McAllister believes this proposal will succeed where prior proposals have failed because he has worked closely with the government “in an open and cooperative way” to craft it. McAllister hopes to have a strong commitment from the government shortly after it is submitted.
Both Michael Coyle and Ron Royston have senior roles in their teams; however, neither of these teams have come to a final decision about supporting the proposal. These teams, like many others in the province, are currently discussing the model in order to decide whether it will benefit them.
Search and Rescue volunteers are a passionate group of people. It is highly apparent that they are incredibly devoted to their teams and are willing to work tirelessly to help people. Kelly describes BC SAR as “second to none in North America.” While a proposal of this nature will always be highly political, it is important to remember that it has been crafted entirely by volunteers in order to improve a system to which they have devoted a large portion of their lives.
As the number of backcountry users increases, Search and Rescue teams will have to meet a dramatically increased demand for their services. The Alternate Support Model hopes to meet that demand. The ongoing debate about the best funding model shows that there is widespread motivation to find a better solution. North Shore Rescue echoed this in their statement regarding the proposal, “solid operational funding would help teams focus on what they do best: rescue those who find themselves in peril in the back-country.”
Cover photo by Michael Coyle