What it takes – Search and Rescue Technicians

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Article / February 28, 2014

By: Erin Abercrombie

On any given day, a fishing vessel and crew could capsize off the Atlantic coast, a hiker could fall into a crevasse in the Arctic or an airplane could get lost in the Rocky Mountains. When this happens, it is the job of Search and Rescue Technicians to get there and save lives.

The Canadian Forces Search and Rescue Technicians, often referred to as SAR Techs, are part of an elite group of primary care paramedics that provide on-scene medical aid and evacuation all over Canada. They are the rescuers of last resort; getting called out in some of the worst weather, to some of the most remote parts of Canada.

There are approximately 130 SAR Techs spread across Canada at five major SAR squadrons in Winnipeg, Trenton, Greenwood, Comox and Gander as well as three Combat Support squadrons.

I had the opportunity to speak with Master Warrant Officer Greg Smit and learn about his experience as a Search and Rescue Technician.

“First of all we are not adrenaline junkies… people that go into it with that kind of mentality are dangerous,” says MWO Smit. He explains that while SAR Techs are always taking risks, they have to make sure they never take uncalculated or unnecessary risks.

SAR Technicians always work in teams of two for this reason. If one of the members doesn’t think the risk will yield a favourable outcome for everyone involved, it simply won’t be done. While they won’t always be going out with the same partner, MWO Smit confirmed that the bond, or “the way we function as one in a team of two” is always the same.

The screening process for Search and Rescue applicants is intense – it has to find the right person for the job.

The SAR Technician occupation is a re-muster trade, meaning that only Canadian Armed Forces members regular and reserve can apply. These applicants must also have a minimum of five years working for the Canadian Armed Forces and be of a Corporal rank.

The second application necessity is being able to pass the Search and Rescue Technician Physical Test, which involves a 675 metre continuous swim in 20 minutes or less in addition to a 1.5 mile run (10 minutes or less), 31 consecutive push-ups, 33 consecutive sit-ups, 8 consecutive chin-ups and a 450 metre shuttle run.

“In other words we’re getting people that are sort of above average in terms of fitness and are cardiovascular fit with good upper body strength,” says MWO Smit.

He pointed out that some people believe the physical test eliminates female applicants, but argues that this is not at all the case. “It’s not so much that we do the test to eliminate people, we do the test because that’s what you need to be able to do, to do the job.” Currently, there are three female applicants on the training course.

After the physical test, an applicant must pass the Search and Rescue Technician Preliminary Assessment Phase held at Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue Detachment in Jarvis Lake, Alberta. From the 30 candidates that show up at Jarvis Lake, only 10-15 will go on to the SAR Technician course.

The Search and Rescue Technician Preliminary Assessment Phase puts the applicants in a similar situation to a typical SAR mission. They wake up in the middle of the night, get sent out not knowing where they are going, in winter, in Northern Alberta; all checks on the SAR Tech job description. The point is to test the applicants’ ability to see through a stressful situation, make a plan and execute it.

Search and Rescue operations may require parachuting, mountaineering, hiking, swimming and diving to reach the people in trouble. Once they graduate from the 11 month Search and Rescue course in Comox, British Columbia, SAR Technicians need to be experts in each category, in addition to completing the necessary medical training.

“We train like we fight. We train every single day, and the training that we do puts us in the best position for success, and also we put ourselves in a position that we don’t end up as casualties ourselves.”

Since 1997, SAR Technicians have been accredited as primary care paramedics; however they also maintain advanced skills that paramedics across Canada do not practice.

For example, a person who has been lost for 24-36 hours with a horrific injury needs antibiotics to deal with the infection, and they need them quick. SAR Techs are able to administer antibiotics before reaching the hospital.

SAR Technicians also work closely with other search and rescue groups and organizations, including the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) and various volunteer ground search and rescue organizations across Canada.

“There is a tight bond, a family in and of itself… quite often we augment each other by utilizing the unique skills that we both have,” says MWO Smit.

Oftentimes, SAR Technicians will work with volunteer groups to help update their first aid or other skills they may need while practicing search and rescue on land.

In September, 50 Ground Search and Rescue volunteers got to learn about the CH-149 Cormorant, and how to work near the primary SAR helicopter for the Victoria SAR region during a training session at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRRC) Victoria.

Giving back to the search and rescue community is one thing, but for many SAR Technicians, job satisfaction comes from returning people to their loved ones and families.

MWO Smit remembers a rescue that took six hours (the maximum time before the SAR crew needs to be replaced) three hundred nautical miles off the coast of Nova Scotia. The pilot told them that they had literally no time left. As they flew away completely exhausted, the captain of the ship and last person out of the water, mouthed the words ‘thank-you’. The ‘thank-you’, in his words is, “the greatest reward we can get.”

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