Community volunteers committed to saving lives
On a cool weekend morning last September, two elderly men from Kelowna set out to enjoy a relaxing fishing excursion on McCulloch Lake, about an hour southeast of the city.
When neither arrived home as expected at around 7 p.m., one of the men's wives grew concerned and reported their absences to the RCMP.
The police, in turn, solicited the help of the Central Okanagan Search and Rescue Society (COSAR) in finding the two missing men.
After convening at the group's headquarters on Old Vernon Road in Kelowna late that night, nine members of COSAR, with three trucks and a boat in tow, deployed to the site at McCulloch Lake to carry out the search and rescue operation.
"When you get a call at 10 at night in September that two fisherman in their 80s are overdue, the first thought is that the boat has overturned," said Duane Tresnich, the vice president of COSAR. "At first, you think this might be a recovery (deceased), as opposed to a rescue. But in this case, the motor had quit on them and they did the right thing by riding to an island and waiting. When we arrived on the scene, they were a little cold, but they were safe and sound. That's how you want all rescues to end."
The McCulloch Lake incident was just one of approximately 30 to 35 calls the Central Okanagan Search and Rescue Society responds to each year, either as the primary group or in assisting other rescue organizations such as those in Penticton, Vernon and Grand Forks.
COSAR, like all search and rescue groups, can only carry out an operation after receiving the go-ahead from a certified tasking agency—such as the RCMP, local fire departments or the Central Okanagan Regional District.
Tresnich, who is a certified emergency manager, said there are a wide array of rescue and recovery scenarios COSAR deals with on an annual basis.
"We typically are looking for lost snowmobilers, hurt snowmobilers, ATVers, motorcyclists during spring and summer, missing hikers or campers," Tresnich said. "You also have people who go missing in town, from places such as hospitals and old folks' homes, so we deal with those situations as well."
COSAR currently has 52 members, between the ages of 18 and 70, all of whom contribute their time and energy on a volunteer basis.
Members are reimbursed for food, mileage and use of vehicles and, as of this year, will receive a $450 tax credit for expenses. Personal equipment, such as backpacks and boots, as well as training costs, all come out of the member's pockets.
In any given year, COSAR members provide up to 7,000 service hours of their time and are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Funding for COSAR comes from three main sources—the Central Okanagan Regional District, provincial gaming grants and fund-raising efforts.
A significant portion of the funds are allocated to large equipment, including COSAR's command post, a fully-equipped 2010 International big-box truck which covers the various aspects of a rescue or recovery operation, including logistics, communications and safety.
In all, COSAR owns about $500,000 worth of equipment, including a 26-foot aluminum boat, trucks, ATVs, snowmobiles and rope gear.
As for the various areas of expertise among the volunteer force, there is a vast range of skills within COSAR.
"Within our group we have a rope rescue team, some members who are trained in swift water rescue, and one in ice rescue," Tresnich said. "We have an extensive medical team, several primary-care paramedics, and several emergency medical response people. All of us have to have at least level 1 first aid. And everyone has hours of training to be proficient on snowmobiles and ATVs."
To become a full member of COSAR, individuals are required to go through an interview process, followed by several months of practise and training.
The last phase is a 70-hour course which is set up through EMBC (Emergency Management B.C.), where members learn map and compass skills, survival and first-aid skills, snowmobile and ATV riding, and a general overview of how search and rescue works in B.C.
Among those in the process of training to become a certified COSAR volunteer is NoëlMcCormack, a 22-year-old student at Okanagan College.
McCormack, who recently moved to Kelowna from Alberta, has long has a passion for the outdoors and hopes she'll be a good fit for the field of search and rescue.
"I've always been an outdoor folk, and it gives me a purpose outside of other things I'm doing in my life, to help people in need," said McCormack. "People venture into the backcountry for a number of reasons and I think that's great. Sometimes things happen that people can't control and they need help. It's important to me that people get home safe and sound, and it's a big reason I thought I would take this on."
McCormack got her first hands-on experience earlier this month when COSAR was assigned to a rescue in the Eneas Lake area in the hills near Peachland. A father, his daughter and their dog were exploring the backcountry when their vehicle became stuck in the snow in frigid -18 temperatures.
After receiving a call from the RCMP, 11 members of COSAR, including McCormack, dispatched to the area with two snowmobiles.
Following a two-hour trip into the woods, COSAR escorted the family members and their dog, cold but unharmed, back to safety.
"It's a great feeling when you see people crawl into warm truck and see the smiles on their faces," McCormack said. "You could see it was a really big moment for them. It's great to see people get home safe and sound, and for me that's a great motivator, for sure."
Still, not all calls COSAR receives have happy endings. Tresnich estimates about 60 per cent are rescues, while the other 40 per cent are recoveries involving the deceased individuals.
COSAR recently received a report of a woodcutter who was long overdue in returning home. Initially, Tresnich and his peers suspected that because the woodcutter was an experienced outdoorsman, he may simply have been injured. But once COSAR initiated the search at the request of the RCMP, they discovered the man had in fact passed away.
Tresnich said such conclusions are regrettable, but are an unfortunate reality of the job.
"We have to be professional about it," he said. "We all have coping mechanisms on how to deal with these, because when you see something like that you take it home with you. It might affect you a couple of days down the road, and might effect how you react with your family, so there are tools in place where we can call in counsellors if needed. Or we can talk with our peers, that's sometimes better."
On the other side of the coin, said Tresnich, is the immense feeling of satisfaction he and other COSAR members derive from a successful rescue and being able to return a family's loved one's home, safe and sound.
"When you actually have a successful rescue and you're able to inform the family what's happening, there's a sense of pride and also great relief," he said. "When you're walking someone out of the bush, you have a huge smile. In your mind when you get a call, you're thinking you could be doing a body retrieval. When you get there and find people are fine, you're ecstatic. It's a great feeling."
It's a feeling COSAR members have shared often in the six decades since formation of the original group, Kelowna Search and Rescue, in 1954.
Now at 60, COSAR is the oldest organization of its kind in B.C.
For more information on COSAR or for volunteer inquiries, visit www.cosar.ca or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.