This year, as Coquitlam Search and Rescue turns 50 years old, the Tri-City News is going behind the scenes with the volunteer team for a feature series.
In a portable close to Coquitlam’s Firehall 1, about a dozen members of Coquitlam Search and Rescue (SAR) ready for an unusual training exercise.
It’s not often that the volunteers have so many skills packed into one scenario, but tonight, they’re testing their talents as a team.
The reality-based drill?
A call for help after a male goes missing while mountain biking on Burke Mountain — a busy spot for the crew, especially since the COVID-19 pandemic started and people began to explore the back country in earnest.
Luckily, the team’s had a sighting. A witness named "James" phoned in at 6 p.m. to report a red colour and a noise at the base of a cliff.
James states to the SAR team that he’ll be on scene — at Avalanche Corner on Coquitlam’s Burke Mountain — until the volunteers arrive.
He’s also provided his coordinates via text message, thanks to an app called YourLo.ca/tion created by Coquitlam SAR team member Michael Coyle; the app is now used by search and rescue teams, as well as ski patrol, around the world.
Before they head up the mountain for the exercise, though, the team members are briefed about the focus of the winter training: They’ll be zeroing in on operations of their Honda Pioneer 1000-5 side-by-side UTV (utility task vehicle), as well as towing, trailering, logistics, eBikes, mountain searching and, of course, the keys to the gates to get on site.
The locked gates to the Tri-Cities’ parks are always a challenge when trying to access a lost subject, says Dave, a Terry Fox Secondary graduate and New Westminster police officer who, at 36, has been with Coquitlam SAR for nearly half his life.
At 7:02 p.m., the team leader Jordan, a Langley City firefighter, reiterates the goals: Stick to the assignment and stay together.
"There are going to be some failures tonight — guaranteed," he says before the members and field gear kits are assigned.
At Port Coquitlam and District Hunting and Fishing Club, a staging area is set up with newly elected president Helena Michelis — another Terry Fox graduate — taking charge from inside the mobile command centre in her role as search manager-in-training. She is lead by veteran volunteers Al Hurley and Ian Cunnings.
The "hasty" cohort, made up of three members on eBikes who can reach the scene first, are already up the mountainous gravel road to reach Avalanche Corner.
Although well-used on the warmer months, the road can be dangerous with falling rocks and gullies, making the slope unstable.
Dave pulls out a waterproof map created by Coquitlam SAR member Steve Chapman before he unlocks the gate to take his Toyota Tacoma truck up the hill.
The UTV team is not far behind.
By 7:49 p.m., the "missing" cyclist is discovered unresponsive by the hasty medic, Andrew, who has already surveyed the 40-metre drop that’s covered in second-growth forest debris.
His teammate, Erica, keeps a close eye on his movements and signals others for a stretcher.
Jordan, who also doubles as the witness James, points out the best places to haul the cyclist out. Ropes are tied on anchor points to Dave’s Tacoma, as well as to the UTV, while the volunteers check their harnesses.
And, from the back of Coquitlam 4 — a Ford F350 SRW pickup — more search equipment is pulled out including a repeater, an electronic device that boosts the power of a communication signal and retransmits it.
It’s good for the mountains, says Dave, citing a search he was involved with in 2010 to look for Tyler Wright; the 36-year-old hiker from Vancouver went missing between Squamish and Coquitlam and was never found.
By 8:25 p.m., Andrew is rappelling 40 m to retrieve the subject, after communication channels are established. Fastened to his backpack are a foam and a thermal wrap to keep the imaginary cyclist warm.
From the command vehicle at the PoCo hunting club, Helena radios in to ask about the exercise and the weather conditions.
"If it’s not raining, it’s not training," Dave jokes, looking up at the starry sky and reflecting on past calls.
Later, he tells the Tri-City News, "It all seems glamorous what we’re doing but, at 2 a.m., when it’s wet and cold, it’s not fun. It’s hard work."
Ten minutes later, Jordan declares the exercise over after the cyclist is pronounced dead by the onsite commander Darren.
Because it’s obvious no foul play is involved, the next step is to take photos of the scene for the coroner who "likely won’t come up here because it’s so remote," Dave says.
"Otherwise, we treat it as a crime scene and wait for the police.”
At 8:47 p.m., once Andrew returns from the gully, Darren asks for a circle to be formed to start the debrief, pointing out the strengths and weaknesses.
It was a good experience, Andrew reports, noting the excellent communication with Erica, who kept watch from above. Others make suggestions on how to improve: dual roles make it hard for team leaders, batteries were not charged, some gear was not packed.
"This is not like doing rope rescue training," Darren tells them.
"This is a fluid environment. As a team leader, my role is to look at the big picture and reassign people. When you’re on a live call, you have to be flexible."
BACK TO BASE
The volunteers will receive a follow-up email to point out the gaps, Jordan says, as more training exercises are planned this year.
That’s because the 49-member team is bracing for yet another busy one as more areas open up in the region and more people head outside to beat the pandemic blues.
Last year, the team responded to 76 calls in the Tri-Cities, New Westminster and Burnaby, of which 32 were in the wilderness, 13 were urban and 31 were mutual aid (outside of Coquitlam SAR’s jurisdiction).
"We always have to be ready — every day," Helena states.
If you wish to donate to Coquitlam SAR for its operations and equipment, you're encouraged to visit the organization's Facebook page.
- Helena Michelis, president
- Stu Fleming, vice president
- Tom Zajac, past president
- Alice Hale, treasurer
- Tracy Crawford, secretary
- Erica McArthur, training director
- David Mountain, equipment director
- Steve Chapman, public education eirector
- Liz Clyne, truck and transport director
- Shakuntla Sharma, membership director
- Ian MacDonald, health and safety director
- Leo Markle, SAR management director
- Tyson Rasmussen, technology director
THE TEN ESSENTIALS
Before you go our for a hike in the Tri-Cities, make sure you have these items in your backpack:
- Flashlight and spare batteries
- Food and water
- Extra clothing
- Navigational aids
- Fire starter
- First Aid kit
- Emergency shelter
- Sun protection
- Pocket knife
- Signalling device