Finding a secure place for their vehicles and equipment is vitally important to Cowichan Search and Rescue. (Submitted)

Cowichan Search and Rescue looking for new home base

After CVRD says it needs their space at Bings Creek for an emergency ops centre, SAR is scrambling

Cowichan Search and Rescue is losing their home base.

Dewi Griffiths, Cowichan SAR president, said the SAR group has been told by the CVRD that it must look for a new permanent space, since the location it is using right now will be wanted for a regional Emergency Operations Centre (EOC) in future.

“It’s part of the CVRD’s taking a big look at all their planning. Apparently, this is related to all the wildfires in B.C. last summer.”

Seeing other areas able to get their emergency operations centres up and running quickly probably helped focus Cowichan Valley decision making, Griffiths said.

“Therefore, I believe, at the higher level, they have decided that they actually need to have some kind of centre like that for the region. And currently emergency management and public safety are housed in the office building downtown. It’s not going to work trying to run a major emergency from the cramped space they have there.”

Griffiths said he believed the CVRD’s strategic thinking includes “an emergency operations centre which is outside the downtown core, has good highway access and has the ability to respond to emergencies anywhere in the Cowichan Valley region,” and the region has been looking at what they might repurpose to fill the bill.

But that leaves the search and rescue group out in the cold.

Years ago, Cowichan SAR operated out of a container at the back of the North Cowichan/Duncan RCMP detachment office. Then, the group moved to the old Maple Bay fire hall for a while before the rent became too high. Then, SAR was able to negotiate with the CVRD to go into about a third of a new building at Bings Creek, along with some regional services.

Bings Creek was a great site for SAR.

“It’s actually the ideal spot in relation to all the tasks we do,” Griffiths said. “It’s pretty close to an ideal position. That’s one of the things we’ll be discussing. I met with the CVRD’s emergency services the Friday before Christmas just to see where things are with that. They are going to try and work with us to see how they can help to mitigate the situation. They don’t want to have us with nowhere to go.”

​Cowichan SAR currently has about 30 active members and are preparing to train a new cadre of over 20 potential members.

In addition to ground search and rescue, the group maintains specialist technical rescue teams in rope rescue and in swiftwater rescue as well as a tracking team. Last year, they had more than 20 incidents and members put in over 2,200 hours of volunteer time, according to Griffiths.

“In addition they contributed over 1,000 hours of GSAR training, 1,000 hours of ropes training and almost 500 hours of swiftwater training. We also provide SAR prevention training in schools and youth clubs. Over the past 10 years, the group has also worked hard to raise funds in order to acquire rescue equipment and rescue vehicles capable of improving the quality, speed and effectiveness of our responses to emergencies. We are currently provisioning our newest technical rescue gear truck and will soon take delivery of our planning and briefing trailer. This will bring our fleet to 11 units, for which we require a secure heated building with power and water capability,” he said.

SAR’s current space comprises two bays at the CVRD Bing’s Creek solid waste management facility. This includes a two storey vehicle bay for a command bus and a one storey vehicle bay with washrooms and a classroom space above serving as an office and training space. Other equipment includes containers for safe storage of other rescue equipment which must be loaded onto vehicles at departure time.

The current space occupies about 40 feet by 45 feet of ground area.

“In order to fully secure our entire fleet and other rescue equipment in one secure building, we will be looking to find, acquire or build something a minimum of 60 feet by 65 feet, with power and heat (and hopefully washroom/kitchenette facilities). This would be without office/training space which we also require, so we have considered an ATCO style trailer or (preferably) being able to incorporate this into the secure vehicle facility which would be more convenient and potentially cheaper. We also have dreams of other capabilities such as incorporating rope rescue training capabilities in the structure design, and the capability to have drive through bays.

“Having worked so hard to build our response capabilities over the past 10 years, it’s been a shock to have to face this new challenge,” he said, but added he’s hoping that goodwill all around will help the group find a solution.

John Elzinga, the CVRD’s general manager of Community Services, said Dec. 28 that the CVRD values the dedication of Cowichan Search and Rescue but is also working to ensure the safety of the community.

Regional plans include locating an emergency operations centre “in a safe location that is easily accessed,” he said.

“The EOC will be set up so it can be operational on a moment’s notice. There will be opportunity for training of staff and emergency personnel. It’s the CVRD’s understanding that Cowichan SAR does have some space challenges in the current facility so the CVRD is working with them to find solutions that work for both Cowichan SAR and the CVRD.”

The EOC is expected to be up and operational by mid-2018, and should be able to offer SAR members further opportunities for training, Elzinga said.

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