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50 years later, Comox Valley Search and Rescue still needs a permanent home

50th anniversary open house set for Oct. 1
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Operation manager and former president of Comox Valley Search & Rescue Paul Berry invites the region’s residents to tour the organization’s facility in celebration of the non-profit’s 50th anniversary on Oct. 1. (Olivier Laurin / Comox Valley Record).

The Comox Valley Search and Rescue (CVSAR) team welcomes you on Oct. 1, from 1 to 4 p.m., at 3001 Moray Avenue to celebrate its 50th birthday of service in the community. Attendees will have a chance to meet the volunteers, tour the facility, enjoy a barbecue and refreshments, as well as raise funds for future projects.

Starting from a humble beginning, CVSAR search manager and former president Paul Berry explained that the non-profit takes root all the way back in the winter of 1974.

“The genesis came out of the search for a missing skier in the Forbidden Plateau area,” said Berry.

“A group of ski patrollers and volunteers went out to search for this individual. Unfortunately, the missing person was ultimately located deceased, but that really spurred the need and recognition of a search and rescue team (in the region).”

Starting out in a cramped 450 sq. ft. concrete room, located in the basement of Courtenay’s courthouse, a small group of experienced volunteers would start the CVSAR.

Now a part of the 78 other SAR teams found across the province, this volunteer-run organization is available around the clock, 365 days a year, serving the Comox Valley and beyond.

With the help of their state-of-the-art equipment and dedicated volunteers, the CVSAR is recognized provincewide for its expertise in running large-scale research operations.

Operating on the ground, rivers, and lakes, the organization has been deployed 1,082 times and saved numerous lives over its five decades of operations.

“One operation that was very memorable was a missing three-year-old in Union Bay back in 2016,” said Berry. “The call came in the evening just before dark that a little fella had disappeared. This spawned a very large-scale search reaching as far out as Nanaimo. Fortunately, 15 hours later, he was eventually located alive with a face full of berries.”

Challenges of being a non-profit

Running a SAR team is no easy task and involves significant costs to ensure the community’s safety, said Berry.

The training of volunteers is responsible for a big part of the organization’s yearly expenses.

“Training can be very expensive,” said Berry. “A (yearly) helicopter recertification, for every member, that’s a $10,000 bill for a day. Helicopter time can cost up to $4,300 an hour. That’s a big cost if we don’t have access to the RCMP helicopter.”

The monthly rent also adds up to the bill, spending more than $88,000 annually to house the team and equipment.

However, Berry highlighted that this is an unfortunate reality that no other SAR team around the province faces.

“All other SAR teams in B.C. are housed on public land,” said Berry. “They either have a building built on public land or they’re housed in some type of municipal facility rent-free. We don’t have that luxury.”

While Berry expresses gratitude to both the provincial and local governments for their grants and support, a significant portion of the funds required to cover the $250,000 operational cost must be sourced from fundraising events and private donations.

With their lease coming to an end this year, CVSAR is currently in search of a new location to serve as its base. The estimated cost of a new 6,500 sq. ft. post-disaster-type building is $1.4 million, and the team is actively working to secure the necessary funds to make this project a reality.

“We’re sitting at $1.2 million right now,” said Berry. “But that’s not gonna get us land and a building at the same time, so we’re still handicapped and have a long way to go.

“We’re quiet, but now we’re financially hobbled. We’ve had to make sacrifices on training and equipment replacement, which all the other teams around us are not having to do.”

Hoping to stay up to par with the rest of the province’s high standards, Berry and his team don’t want the security of the Island’s residents to be potentially at risk for financial reasons.

“People come to live in the Comox Valley because of the environment, to ski, to hike, and to bike,” said Berry. “We’re the agency that goes to assist people in need. Yet, right now, we’re struggling to be able to do that.”

To donate, volunteer or know more about CVSAR, visit cvgsar.com