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Canadian civil coastal search-and-rescue

By Lisa Gordon

Published on: January 11, 2024
Estimated reading time 23 minutes, 57 seconds.

Vertical Valor goes behind the scenes with search-and-rescue teams on Canada’s East and West Coasts.

Get in and get out — quickly, efficiently and safely.

When it comes to search-and-rescue (SAR) operations where every minute counts, that’s the name of the game.

While rescuers have perfected their use of many tools, there is perhaps no single piece of equipment that has so vastly changed SAR procedures than the helicopter.

Composed of emergency medical professionals who are experts in critical care and trauma, the North Shore Rescue team and its advanced lifesaving equipment can make the difference between life and death. Peg Leg Films Photo

According to a 2014 paper written by then Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) Lt. Col. Clinton Mowbray, the first recorded helicopter rescue mission on Canadian soil occurred in Labrador in May 1945, following the crash of a PBY-5A Canso aircraft. A U.S. Coast Guard HNS-1 helicopter from New York was transported into Goose Bay. From there, it conducted nine flights to rescue the stranded Canso crew — bringing home one airman at a time until all were safe.

Things have certainly changed since Canada’s first helicopter rescue.

“In the early days, there were no helicopters and a lot of bushwhacking,” reflected John Blown, air operations coordinator with North Shore Rescue (NSR), a mountain SAR team based in Vancouver.

Founded in 1965, NSR is one of the first volunteer-driven SAR organizations in the country. Geographically, it covers the North Shore Mountains overlooking the city of Vancouver, where nearly three million people are within a 20-minute drive of some pretty wild territory. As more and more people flock to the mountains to ski, snowboard, hike and climb, NSR is getting busier.

In a typical year, its 50 active volunteer members answer about 150 calls for help. A helicopter — operated by an approved private provider — is called out about 60 percent of the time.

About 18 volunteers in NSR’s ranks are trained for Transport Canada approved Class D helicopter rescues using both longline and hoist/winch operations. Rescues in this category may also be referred to as human external cargo (HEC) and human external transport system (HETS) operations, among other names.

The British Columbia Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) provides provincial SAR groups with tools and resources to monitor their volunteer training. Arrowsmith Search and Rescue Photo

NSR’s Class D team is busy, especially since a joint effort with Talon Helicopters of Richmond, B.C., resulted in regulatory approval to conduct night hoist rescues using night vision goggles (NVGs). So far, Talon’s Airbus AS365 N2 Dauphin delivers the only nighttime helicopter rescue capability in Canada besides the RCAF.

“Right after we got approved for night hoisting, we got a call for a snowboarder who was missing on Cypress Mountain,” Blown recalled. “Avalanche conditions were high and we are limited as to what kind of terrain we can travel through on the ground. Teams found tracks going through Australian Gully. Our night helicopter went out and with NVGs you can see a light source from miles away. We located the subject in the gully, we hoisted a member down to him, put him in the harness and got him out quickly. There was minimal exposure to avalanche terrain and less danger for rescuers.”

Blown said all NSR volunteers are trained annually on how to enter and exit a helicopter while it is hovering. The Class D team does regular training for both fixed line and hoist, although currently the regulatory requirement is only once per year.

However, “there’s a big difference between current and proficient,” he said. “We are increasing our training frequency significantly.”

Valley Helicopters of Hope, B.C., performs 20 to 25 SAR missions per year. President Brad Fandrich said it takes time for pilots to build the precision longlining skills needed to perform rescues. Valley Helicopters Photo

Blown explained the criteria for calling out a rescue helicopter. First, the subject’s condition, if known — are they ambulatory or do they need a stretcher? Next, what are the environmental conditions — is a storm on the way or is darkness looming? Does using a helicopter increase the safety factor for volunteer rescuers? Finally, would the man hours and people commitment be too heavy without a helicopter?

“Forty percent of our calls are medical-related,” he added. “Quite a few of those are significant medical issues where they need to go to a hospital as quickly as possible.”

In those situations, NSR’s advanced medical provider team is called out. Composed of emergency medical professionals who are experts in critical care and trauma, the team and its advanced lifesaving equipment can make the difference between life and death during a mountain rescue.

“One of the challenges we face is a lot of our terrain is treed and very steep,” Blown explained. “Our mountains were glaciated so as you go down, a lot of them get steeper. People quite often go down when they are lost, and they inevitably end up in a gully, where it could be harder to reach them. In an avalanche, people get pushed into trees or over cliffs, so there is often trauma.”

With 200-foot (60-meter) trees, it’s not uncommon for NSR to use more than 200 ft. (60 m) of cable when they are hoisting. With the longline, they can go up to 300 ft. (90 m). Blown said rescues are often performed with Boost Systems’ HEC dual releasable hook system.

One of the strengths of B.C.’s SAR community is its incredible depth of expertise. With 78 approved volunteer rescue teams operating throughout the province, it’s possible to consult avalanche forecasters, doctors, ski patrollers, and experts in everything from Class D rescues to swift water, rope rescue, radio comms and snowmobiles.

Those rescue teams are collectively represented by the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA). CEO Dwight Yochim told Vertical Valor that B.C. alone accounts for about half of all Canadian SAR missions.

Newfoundland Helicopters acquired the Boost system for Class D HEC operations about a year ago. So far, it has been used three times for rescues around the rugged Avalon Peninsula. Newfoundland Helicopters Photo

There are about 3,400 volunteers in the province, performing 1,500 searches and rescues per year. Of those, about 150 are Class D HEC and hoist rescues and a further 450 use helicopters to transport searchers into the wilderness.

Yochim explained that when someone goes missing, it is the police who make the decision to activate search and rescue, while B.C. Ambulance Service makes the call if someone is known to be hurt.

The province covers the cost of SAR operations in B.C., currently standing at over C$7 million (US$5 million) annually.

He said that if SAR managers deem it necessary, they can requisition a helicopter.

“A lot of trust is given to the SAR manager,” Yochim noted. “You don’t fire up a helicopter for someone who is missing in the city right away. You have a plan to evaluate urgency and safety and there is a delicate balance there.” 

He continued: “You are allowed to use helicopters for about one hour prior to getting permission. If you meet the conditions of your plan, you can save time and activate the helicopter and then let the province know about it after it has been mobilized.”

BCSARA provides provincial SAR groups with tools and resources to monitor their volunteer training, with all instruction tracked in the organization’s database.

Yochim said it is amazing how Class D rescues have developed.

“I think B.C. had the first volunteer groups to use HEC systems. They require a twin-engine helicopter,” Yochim said. “The hoists offer more flexibility and are helpful in getting people in and out of tight areas. It’s pretty amazing when you see a helicopter pilot lower people down through a tree canopy. The helicopter is an amazing tool — in the right conditions, it can make the difference in saving a life.”

North Shore Rescue covers the North Shore Mountains overlooking the city of Vancouver, where nearly three million people are within a 20-minute drive of some pretty wild territory. Peg Leg Films Photo

Take the paraglider who got hung up in a tree, 150 ft. (45 m) off the ground, for example. Brad Fandrich, president of Valley Helicopters in Hope, B.C., said a rescuer was longlined in, got the subject into a harness, freed him from the tree and slung him out.

“They literally picked him out of the tree,” Fandrich said. “Things like that have made the job of a rescuer a lot safer, in my opinion, compared to hiking in and then climbing up the tree to get him.”

Valley Helicopters has provided air support to a number of SAR organizations throughout Southwestern B.C. since it was founded in 1985. Today, it operates nine helicopters equipped with satellite tracking and phones to assist in delivering a rapid emergency response.

“We got approved to do longline rescue in 2001. Since then, we’ve mainly worked with Chilliwack SAR, as well as Coquitlam SAR. We generally use our Bell 407s. However, we recently added a Bell 429 which has a factory double hook. Now, we can take a subject directly into a hospital with an H1 helipad.”

On average, Fandrich said Valley Helicopters performs 20 to 25 SAR missions per year. During busy fire seasons when aircraft are occupied elsewhere, he said it’s normal for SAR helicopters to travel further than normal to answer a call for help.

At least once a year, Valley Helicopters and the SAR teams it works with must perform hover exit and Class D longline training.

“Whenever we go on a SAR call, we always bring a stretcher,” he continued. “Most of the SAR groups carry everything else they need. They supply harnesses. We come equipped with the dual hook [Boost] system, which is required by Transport Canada. Boost allows the machine to be ready for a rescue quickly. The older system we used was called a belly band and that took longer to set up once we were at the scene.”

In total, Fandrich said most SAR calls involve less than two hours of flying.

“We will get a call, we’ll get the helicopter ready and find a meeting point with the volunteers,” he said. “We’ll put a few SAR members on board and search for the subject or go to their coordinates. Once we locate them, we discuss a plan of how we’ll execute the rescue. Then we go to a staging area where they get their harnesses on. Sometimes, we’re slinging the subject to an ambulance or to the waiting SAR members.”

Harry Blackmore, president of Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, said helicopters are the “top tool” in his group’s search-and-rescue toolbox. NLSARA Photo

He said it takes time to build the precision longlining skills that pilots require for SAR missions.

“It’s also a bit of a mental game. There are some pilots who don’t enjoy having a human on the end of the line, even if they are capable of that type of work. It’s not for everyone.”

You can’t beat eyes in the sky

All the way across Canada, the rugged Newfoundland and Labrador coastline calls to adventurers of all kinds. Unfortunately, when the province’s many trails are busy, so are SAR crews.

“The helicopter to me is the lifeline of a lot of what we do,” said Harry Blackmore, president of Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association (NLSARA). “Without it, it means an awful lot of work.”

Blackmore should know. After 52 years as a volunteer searcher, he’s seen countless rescues. Now, as the president of NLSARA, he leads about 900 volunteers throughout the province who are tasked by police agencies to find missing persons and assist with other emergencies.

Last year, NLSARA answered 150 to 160 SAR calls. Of those, helicopters were involved with ground search teams at least 120 times.

“Last week, a group of experienced hikers got about eight to nine kilometers [five to six miles] into the trail,” Blackmore told Vertical Valor. “The humidex in there was 38 degrees Celsius [100 degrees Fahrenheit]. They had all the right gear, but one got heat exhaustion. They pressed SOS on their Garmin InReach device. We left our base, and 75 minutes later we put the person in an ambulance. That would have taken us 12 hours on foot. We have some rugged terrain here, especially on the coast.”

NLSARA incorporated in 1996 but Blackmore said it’s been using helicopters since the 1970s.

“There’s no question whether we need one — it’s the top tool in our toolbox,” he said. “They can cover so much territory compared to if we walk or take our quads or ATVs — it’s so quick and efficient. Drones have taken over some things, but you still cannot beat eyes in the sky in my book.” 

Helicopter services are provided to NLSARA through a provincial government contract with Newfoundland Helicopters and Canadian Helicopters. Blackmore oversees training with his volunteers and the helicopter pilots every six months instead of the required once per year. Currently, he has seven teams (nine people per team) trained to use the Boost HEC system on a helicopter.

“The Boost system is another tool in the box,” he continued. “If we find people who are miles and miles out in the country, you can bring in the helicopter and pick them up.”

Night searches in Newfoundland and Labrador are performed by the RCAF’s 103 Search and Rescue Squadron, flying the CH-149 Cormorant helicopter.

Peter Jefford is a 15,000-hour pilot and director of flight operations at Newfoundland Helicopters. Speaking to Vertical Valor while on fire duty in late July, Jefford said the company has been providing aerial support to volunteer SAR units for almost four years, using one Bell 407 in St. John’s and one Bell 206 LongRanger near Gander. Three more aircraft are operated by Canadian Helicopters, for a total of five in the province.

He explained that the number of SAR calls varies each year depending on the weather.

Founded in 1965, North Shore Rescue is one of the first volunteer-driven SAR organizations in Canada. Peg Leg Films Photo

“In good weather, we have a lot of campers and hikers,” he said. “Some years, we could do as many as 15 rescues, or other years as few as three.”

During the past year, Newfoundland Helicopters acquired the Boost system for Class D HEC. So far, it has been used three times for missing or injured persons on the network of rugged trails around the Avalon Peninsula.

“The ground SAR personnel have a Y-lanyard attached to the Boost dual hook system,” Jefford explained. “From the lanyard is the longline, 100 to 150 ft. [30 to 45 m]. Typically, we use 100 ft. [30 m].”

He said the Boost system is simple and eliminates main rotor downwash from the patient, unlike typical rappelling or winching where the patient comes close to the aircraft.

It came in useful on a recent call, when an elderly gentleman found himself lost and disoriented off the East Coast Trail.

“He found phone service and called in to emergency services,” Jefford recounted. “The NLSARA team established where he was, but when they flew in, there was nowhere to land. They chose a staging area, installed the external equipment on the aircraft, and two members harnessed in to the gentleman.
They harnessed him up and all three were extracted at the same time. Previously, this would have been a ground recovery by foot.”

The helicopter and the Boost system are critical to saving lives, Jefford said. “Most times, time is of the essence. The sooner you can get to the patient, the sooner you can save a life or get someone back home. It’s the fastest way we have to service the public.” 

Since Canada’s first helicopter rescue in 1945, times have changed and equipment has advanced — but some things remain constant. Quick and agile, helicopters have earned their place at the top of the SAR toolbox.

With the adoption of Class D HEC equipment and technology, such as night vision goggles, rescuers have increased their chances of getting in and getting out — quickly, efficiently and safely.

Just as important, the odds of bringing a missing person home safe and sound are better than ever.

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1 Comment

  1. « So far, Talon’s Airbus AS365 N2 Dauphin delivers the only nighttime helicopter rescue capability in Canada besides the RCAF »
    This statement is quite wrong. The Quebec Provincial Police B412 team ( Police crew member with civilian pilot through the Service Aerien Gouvernemental du Quebec ) has been providing 24h SAR / classD hoisting since the early 2000’s! Cougar, a civilian operator, has also been providing 24h SAR for quite a number of years.
    Nice article but you left out what our operation is providing, as well as Cougar out of St John’s!

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