They have trekked through forests, mountains and waterways, and now Comox Valley Ground Search and Rescue is planning to stay a little bit closer to home to celebrate a milestone.
CVGSAR is opening its doors to the public Saturday as part of an open house to celebrate 40 years of service to the community.
“We want to look at where the team has come from, where it’s going and celebrate how it began,” explained Paul Berry, information officer/SAR manager for the organization.
Reflecting on the past 40 years, Berry noted the program initially began from provincial civil defence during the war years, and slowly morphed into the Provincial Emergency Program.
Volunteers were trained to respond to civil disasters, and in 1974, the team in the Comox Valley was formed and trained search leaders and volunteers to respond to and assist the RCMP with search and rescue operations and civil emergencies.
During the first year, CVGSAR’s 30 members responded to three operational taskings — all ground searches.
Forty years later, the team has grown to 60 members with an average of 40 taskings each year.
Even with GPS technology, ground searches remain a constant, and CVGSAR members are involved in a variety of operations, including medical rescues in the back country, personal emergency beacons, swift water rescues, rope rescues, evidence searches and recovery operations.
Berry said he joined the organization in 2002, and saw it as an opportunity to give back to the community.
“It came from a need to do something outside of regular work. I met with the team … I enjoy the outdoors, have military experience and I was very impressed with the nature of the people who did it.”
He recalls one of the first searches he assisted which demonstrated the selflessness of his fellow volunteers.
“There was a medical rescue on the glacier — a hiker with a broken leg. I was part of the first team to go up, and the weather wasn’t great. We were heading down on the long trail and I was looking down to the Valley and could see little glowing dots,” he explained.
“It sent a shiver down my spine when I realized it was the headlamps of the volunteers who dropped everything at that moment and were working their way up the trail to help.”
Despite changes to technology over the past 40 years, Berry noted the basics of search and rescue remain the same.
“There’s a deep passion (between members) to help others. You really see the passion come out (in a rescue) when it’s the middle of the night, it’s pounding rain outside — the type of weather when you really don’t want to be out — and yet every time it happens, the members show up in good cheer with a sense of humour.”
He added a primary responsibility of volunteers is devoting the time to being well trained and work within a team environment.
CVGSAR volunteers, like all SAR volunteers across the province, undergo a rigorous initial training to provide them the foundational skills to participate safely and effectively in SAR operations.
Once certified as a Ground Search Technician, members can choose to specialize in a number of SAR disciplines including avalanche rescue, swift water rescue, high angle rope rescue and K-9 search.
Berry said where technology has significantly helped the team is in the science of searches.
“Electronic navigation has made navigation much more precise. We know in real time where a searcher is, and it’s changed the nature of what we do with more detailed rather than large-scale rescues.”
He added searchers can now communicate with each other in any parts of the Island, and they can draw upon a database to help with specific searches, demonstrated recently in the search for Cumberland resident Jamie Sproule in May.
Thanking the community
Berry explained Saturday’s open house is an opportunity to extend a thank you to the community, as well as allow the public to see the technical side of what the team does during a rescue.
There will be vehicle and equipment displays, and an opportunity for anyone to participate in SAR activities.
Kids can participate in a wilderness survival program, try out a climbing wall or try a tug-of-war with a rope system.
The event takes place between 1 and 4 p.m. Sept. 20 at CVGSAR’s headquarters at 3001 Moray Ave.