Members of Surrey Search and Rescue has overnight exercises in harsh winter conditions as part of their mandatory training. The non-profit society has been serving the area since 1973.

SSAR: In search of volunteers

Surrey Search and Rescue changes the way it finds missing persons.

In the spring of 2014, members of Surrey Search and Rescue (SSAR) were called to assist Richmond RCMP in finding a missing man.

He went out on a bike ride and was gone for several hours.

His wife told police that, although her elderly husband was not diagnosed with dementia, he was starting to be confused and have memory lapses.

SSAR volunteers arrived and began to search for him, in cars, on foot and on bikes.

After a few more hours the man was spotted with his bike, on a side street.

Banged up and heavily scratched by bike spills from his outing, the man was returned home.

The search took several hours and involved eight RCMP officers, 10 auxiliary officers and 18 SSAR members – with more having been called out when the man was found.

The fact that he was finally spotted by an RCMP officer is no issue for SSAR members, as the event came to a happy ending for the family.

In many ways, it was a typical search for SSAR in that it was labour-intensive.

But the use of such manpower from the all-volunteer non-profit society might change, if Sean Magnusson has anything to say about it.

Magnusson, SSAR’s safety officer, is the point man for Project Lifesaver, an electronic system that aims to speed up the recovery of missing people, leaving SSAR prepared to respond to other calls.

If the man who went missing in Richmond does the same thing – though he is admittedly now watched more closely by his family – the time to find him will be a fraction of last year’s search.

He now wears a wristwatch-like device that emits a high-frequency beep every second, which allows SSAR members with a hand-held radio antenna set to the proper frequency to find him.

It’s not GPS or real-time continual monitoring (there are no privacy issues), but a simple directional finder – effective from several hundred metres on the ground and up to a few kilometres in the air.

Photo: The Project Lifesaver receiver antenna.

The point-and-find system is part of SSAR’s regular training.

SSAR is among the first search-and-rescue group in B.C. to implement Project Lifesaver. The only others are the Search and Rescue Society of B.C. (Victoria) and Juan de Fuca Search and Rescue, both of which cover southern Vancouver Island.

For now, there are just a handful of people registered on the system with SSAR – people deemed at risk to go missing, with Alzheimer’s disease, autism, Down syndrome, dementia, brain injuries or other disorders.

It’s not free (there’s $400 lifetime lease and a $25-per-month support system), but Magnusson says its implementation can make for a more efficient use of resources.

“It’s here. It works. It’s so much easier on everybody.”

Because the system is in its infancy in the region, so far, SSAR members have only been spending time training and making regular visits to clients to change batteries, take updated head shots and update personal (habit) information on their clients.

During exercises, “missing” volunteers (sometimes in deep bush) with Project Lifesaver receivers have been found in just a few minutes by searchers several blocks away.

In the meantime, SSAR continues with what it began more than 40 years ago: Providing search-and-rescue services for the City of Surrey – although nowadays, the society’s mandate includes White Rock, Delta and Richmond.

“We average somewhere between 30 and 35, maybe 40 calls – including mutual aid calls (per year),” notes SSAR Vice-President Brent Trueman.

All calls, which usually involve missing persons, are made to SSAR by the RCMP, who already have the open file of a missing person.

Photo: Surrey Search and Rescue Vice-President Brent Trueman (left) and Safety Officer Sean Magnusson.

Conditions vary, but in each case, some of SSAR’s 45-or-so volunteers are called out to a meeting point supervised by the RCMP who are still nominally in charge of each scene.

“We don’t do anything on our own,” says Trueman.

The information shared includes not only a description of the individual, but their last known location, their physical health and state of mind (as provided by family or friends) and known habits.

Those habits, such as smoking and the resultant cigarette butts, can help searchers.

“We’re looking for specific things like that,” Trueman says.

A couple of times a year, the RCMP calls in SSAR volunteers to look for evidence – sometimes the classic shoulder-to-shoulder searches to cover more ground.

But the most common calls in the Surrey area are for missing persons – seniors, teens and children.

Not all searches are successful, but Magnusson says that SSAR is just one component of missing-persons cases; notifications by police are also made to transit personnel and realtors to be on the lookout for missing people.

Unlike the well-publicized search-and-rescue societies in the North Shore and Coquitlam, SSAR doesn’t usually get involved in dramatic helicopter, rope or water rescues, but SSAR does have specialists with advanced training that are sometimes called to other areas in the province to assist.

Because of that, SSAR members-in-training are asked to participate in a spring overnight training event.

It’s not just arriving in a secluded spot and setting up a tent, but extensive training for two days broken up by a sleep in the outdoors.

“We let them have a feel for what it’s like to be by yourself for a night out in the woods,” says Trueman. “I don’t think there are a lot of teams that do that.”

Members preparing for more advanced mutual-aid calls then participate in a similar overnight trip, but in winter, on a snow-covered mountain.

Although the South Fraser area doesn’t have the North Shore’s mountainous terrain, Magnusson says that Surrey still has some rugged parks with dense woods.

“You get in there and you’re not getting out, unless you really know your way around.”

Photo: Even though water rescues are rare, Surrey Search and Members can opt for specialized training. On occasion, they get called out to assist other search-and-rescue agencies.

There are also the steep bluffs in White Rock/South Surrey and Whalley, which make rope rescues necessary.

About 10 per cent of calls are river calls. SSAR does have some marine equipment, and are able to assist the RCMP along shorelines and inland rivers.

Training takes about a year before members-in-training can apply to be full members – who take further training.

The volunteers come from all walks of life, and negotiate with their employers how much time then can take off work when they get a call, which can happen at any time.

Sometimes, the employers are good about the absences, says Magnusson. But, he adds, “we don’t make the call” about how long a search goes on for. That’s the RCMP’s decision.

The non-profit society has been in operation, since 1973, with those early volunteers providing their own equipment in their own private cars.

Their first van was a rusty relic from a local fire department.

Over the years, they’ve built up their equipment (volunteers don’t have to provide any), and have a well-equipped command vehicle and several support units – all thanks to sponsor companies and organizations, and private donations.

SSAR accepts applications from prospective members year-round. Recruitment intakes are held every spring.

For more information, visit www.surreysearchandrescue.com. The website has a section on Project

Lifesaver.

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