In 2001 I volunteered for Coquitlam Search and Rescue. I had
no idea what I was getting into.
My idea of SAR was that every once in a while when someone
went missing, people were needed to go and look for them. I thought that my
experience as a mountaineer, rock climber and general backcountry enthusiast
would make me an ideal person to help in this sort of effort. I was right in
that the team was looking for people like me, but I was wrong in my
expectations on what SAR was about, how much work would be required, and how
rewarding it was going to be.
I've always been involved in public service in one way or another. It could have come from being involved in the scouting movement when I was young, or something about the way my parents raised me. I was taught that there was always someone that needed help, and if you had the time and resources you were bound to assist others. I thought that by volunteering for SAR I would be able to use the skills I already had to accomplish simple tasks that had a resolution. Unlike other volunteer positions, such as working against poverty or homelessness, the problem of a lost person had a solution that was attainable; I figured it would be rewarding to devote my time to something with such a simple goal.
I've been involved in SAR now for 12 years. I can report that it has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done with my time, and that it far exceeded any concept I had about it. I've worked with some of the most skilled and dedicated people I've ever met, and in some of the most challenging and difficult conditions you could imagine. I've worked with a team of people who've found lost and injured people and returned them to their loved ones. That's the reward.
However, the effort has not been without difficulties. Not everyone we look for is found alive, so I've also been involved in recovering the remains of deceased people, and been personally responsible for showing members of a family where their son, daughter, father or mother was found. This part of the work is difficult beyond compare, but even worse is telling the family that their lost person was not found. Watching people begin to deal with the grief of this kind of loss is the hardest thing of all. Knowing that we did our best is only a partial relief.
Aside from the mix of tragedy and reward, there is another side of SAR that I hadn't anticipated when I joined, and that's the process of becoming part of a team of other, incredibly dedicated volunteers. My assumptions about the level of training required to become part of a SAR team were rather low. In order to be prepared for a search, we meet for weekly training, plan at least one monthly team training event on a weekend, and can be involved in several full weekend courses per year in such topics as basic SAR, rope rescue, swift water, helicopter rescue, mountain rescue and avalanche response. Aside from certifications, there is the time devoted to re-certifying, developing new rescue skills, and most importantly, training others.
It's this last thing, training other volunteers, that I've found to be surprisingly rewarding. Bringing together a group of like-minded individuals with such dedication and determination is inspiring. Seeing the time they spend training for SAR, and then witnessing them using their skills to save lives is incredibly powerful. The feeling you get knowing that you had a part in their training is one of great pride.
Volunteering for SAR has been one of the hardest things I've ever done, but also one of the most rewarding. I fully intend to continue for another 12 years; I'll let you know how it goes.
It's time to join British Columbia's emergency volunteer lifeline and support National Volunteer Week 2012. Visit EmergencyInfoBC to learn more.