The veteran head of busy North Shore Rescue is calling for a new deal for volunteer rescue organizations that would include salaries for some volunteers, dedicated helicopters and improved communications.
Tim Jones, a paramedic, said the current system of volunteers who rely on private helicopters paid for by the province is not sustainable given increasing demand for rescue as more and more people venture deeper into the back country. He said change is required for the 80 teams of 3,000 volunteers operating across the province.
"We're at a plateau. We have to go to another plateau," Mr. Jones said Monday, days after a succinct manifesto for change was posted on North Shore Rescue's blog on Mr. Jones' behalf. "I can't read into a crystal ball and say, 'The system is going to break, and everything is going to break and everything is going to collapse, and everybody is going to die.' That's not going to happen. What you're going to have happen is eventually you're going to see teams not be able to provide that level of response people would expect from a 911 service."
Mr. Jones described his proposals as a "pre-emptive discussion" for planning to begin now. While improved communications, including repeater devices in mountains to amplify radio signals, might cost $25-million, he said, he did not have projected costs for the other ideas.
Still, he is calling for payment for a core group of skilled volunteers as well as dedicated helicopters, as opposed to the current model in which choppers may be hired out for other services and so are not always available. "I'm not talking about a little thing. This is millions of dollars and a cultural shift. It's going to take years to implement this and to have discussions to figure out how to do this."
Speaking for the province, a spokesman for Emergency Management B.C. said Monday that it would be helpful for Mr. Jones to submit a written proposal. Ian Cunnings said the government has a lot of respect for volunteers, reflected in $7-million in annual funding for helicopters, mileage, meals and other costs.
But the response from the provincial search and rescue organization and its national counterpart was more mixed.
Don Bindon, president of the B.C. Search and Rescue Association, said volunteers have accepted the status quo – including the absence of salaries – and that the duly elected board of the association has yet to be officially asked to take any new position. "Blogging [the proposal] is not the way I would consider it being a formal proposal for us to consider," he said.
The head of the national Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada, representing 12,000 volunteers, said from his home in Newfoundland that he has heard Mr. Jones' concerns about appropriate provincial support echoed among organizations across the country.
"We've been dealing with these issues for years," Harry Blackmore said. "Right now, the funding situation across the country is totally haphazard. It's all over the map."
Mr. Blackmore said communications are a provincial concern, though he suggested the federal government could ease costs for licence fees to use radios. As for helicopters, he noted the only dedicated choppers are those used by the Defence Department, and access to such aircraft varies by province. "I know where North Shore is coming from. But it's something taken care of by each province and territory by themselves."
The retired firefighter was wary about salaries for volunteers.
"I don't think there's such a thing as a paid volunteer," he said. However, he noted his organization has lobbied Ottawa for tax breaks for volunteers in search and rescue duties akin to those available to volunteer firefighters. "We're not having much luck but we still are pushing it."