Search and Rescue Association: a fine-tuned operation

Sebastien Weisser considers himself a fortunate man. When his snowmobile broke down in a remote location on the Top of the World highway near Dawson City, he wasn’t worried. “I knew someone would come and get me,” he says. “It was just a matter of waiting.”

Weisser knew that when he didn’t return home at the designated time, the Klondike Search and Rescue Association (KSARA) would soon be out looking for him. KSARA is a non-profit organization of volunteers working in partnership with the Emergency Measures Organization of Yukon Government (EMO) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) to provide ground and inland water search and rescues.

John Mitchell is the president and search manager of KSARA. He has been involved in search and rescue since 1991 and brings a wealth of local knowledge to the organization. The longtime Dawson resident is also a patrol sergeant for the Dawson patrol of the Canadian Rangers, a sub-component of the Canadian Forces Reserve.

He points out that most of the volunteers of KSARA are involved with the Rangers, who train their members in search and rescue while out on patrols. “They bring the skills and have the equipment to meet the needs of the rescue,” says Mitchell.

Many of the volunteers also possess a valuable knowledge of the local trails and rivers from having lived and spent time on the land. Others have taken courses such as wilderness first aid and avalanche training. “These people create a resource package that is invaluable in saving lives,” says Mitchell.

Having an organization like KSARA also brings a chain of command to the rescue operation. “We’re just one cog in the wheel,” says Mitchell. He liaises with the local detachment of the RCMP, the nursing station, and other government agencies. “As soon as something looks like it will happen, I start lining things up.”

Rescuers are in a constant state of readiness. They could be sent out at a moment’s notice in sub-zero temperatures, therefore they must be prepared to take care of themselves no matter what the conditions.

Tyson Bourgard, a volunteer for KSARA and a private in the Canadian Rangers, always has a kit packed and ready to go. “I can be ready in half an hour,” he says.

Bourgard’s kit usually includes items such as a sleeping bag, Therm-a-Rest, tarps and ropes, among other things. Everything should be of help should a rescuer have to spend an unexpected night out at 40-below temperatures, he says.

When Mitchell gets the heads-up that there may be trouble, he calls the volunteers he feels are capable and available for that particular rescue situation. While it is the RCMP that ultimately makes the decision to start the search, KSARA wants to be ready and can advise the police as to the urgency of the situation based on their knowledge of the area of rescue.

While the rescuers are preparing themselves, Mitchell starts gathering specific information by talking to the RCMP, as well as family and friends of the missing person, mapping out a location of where that person was last seen in order to formulate a search plan.

When the go is given, Mitchell issues the general response kit—which is kept ready at all times and contains such items as rations and a satellite phone—to his initialfour-man team, then sends them out to begin the search. He keeps a secondary, back-up team on alert in case there is a need to escalate operations.

As search manager, all communication goes through Mitchell. Rescuers call in periodically and establish “way points”, allowing Mitchell to plot coordinates, keep track of the progress and, if necessary, adjust the search operations.

“There’s a format to reporting,” he says. Rescuers must let Mitchell know where they are, whether everyone is ok, what the situation is, and what their intentions are as to whether they are coming back with the rescued person, or in the case of a nighttime rescue, must camp overnight and wait for a helicopter pickup in the daylight.

Throughout the whole process, Mitchell continues to be the hub, keeping the lines of communication open and relaying information to all those involved until the rescue is complete.

There are three things needed for success in a rescue, concludes Mitchell: people that are capable, equipment suited to the situation, and communication. Judging by the experience, efficiency and readiness to help of the men and women in KSARA, all three of these criteria are being met.

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