Surrey residents can sleep better knowing that South Fraser Search and Rescue volunteers are ready at any given moment to perform.
Formerly called Surrey Search and Rescue, the outfit adopted its new name seeing as since 1973 it’s been serving Surrey, Delta, Richmond and White Rock as its primary coverage area – roughly about 10 per cent of the population of B.C.
When one thinks of search and rescue, things like crampons, ropes, slippery slopes and icy cliffs come to mind. But there’s not too many mountains in these parts, of course. Out here, it’s more like fields, ravines, streams and city streets.
“We are a bit unique that we’re one of the few teams in the province that pretty much doesn’t do rescue but almost everything we do is a search,” says Andrew Wallwork, 34, who has been volunteering with South Fraser Search and Rescue for eight years.
When tasked with a mission, it’s typically to find people who’ve been reported missing. Part of the trick is trying to figure out what the missing person is most likely to do.
“A substantial part of our calls are folks living with dementia or kids living with sort-of neuro diversions that make them more prone to wandering,” Wallwork says.
“The majority of our calls come from Surrey, which makes sense given the population demographic, but certainly throughout the region the requests for service has been on a bit of a steady uptick recognizing that the fundamentals of our calls for service are pretty well directly tied to an aging population and more folks are living with conditions that do make them more prone to wandering.”
Sadly, this looks to be a growth industry. South Fraser Search and Rescue has hired a PhD data scientist who looks for trends. Wallwork notes the percentage of the population living with dementia is expected to double or even triple over the next 10 years.
The volunteers also offer presentations through a program called AdventureSmart for schools, community groups and cadets that focuses on planning, training and safety essentials aimed at reducing the need for calls for help from people venturing into the great outdoors.
“We’ve reached thousands of people over the last three years, basically giving them that skillset so when they go out, it’s really simple things like tell somebody where you’re going,” he said, “what time you’re coming back.”
Or packing a signalling device, a whistle, and a headlamp.
After all, “It gets dark at night.”
The organization has about 50 members, all volunteers. Most have day jobs or are self-employed. Wallwork, for example, is a tax auditor for the provincial government.
The South Surrey resident and search manager has a background in scouting and was looking for a way to give back.
“It seemed like an interesting opportunity to go through, do something different,” he says.
“There’s no such thing as a typical call. There can be a wide range of reasons why somebody may go missing, we don’t care, we just want to go through and provide that help, so we certainly don’t judge.”
Wallwork says reuniting a lost person with his or her family “is one of the best feelings in the world.”
“Feeling the family’s gratitude, that’s the best feeling in the world.” Finding somebody who was lost is also “the best feeling in the world, knowing that you’ve taken somebody on one of the worst days of their life and made it better.”
On-call day and night, usually at the request of police, SFSR has since Jan. 1 tackled seven incidents, all in Surrey – in South Surrey, Newton, and near the Port Mann and Alex Fraser bridges. Of those seven, two of the people were “despondent,” and the others live with dementia.
During the early days of the pandemic, there were five searches in six days.
Surrey RCMP Cpl. Vanessa Munn says SFSR is an “invaluable resource which we most commonly utilize to assist in our missing or lost persons reports. You know, we’re very thankful for all those dedicated volunteers that ensure that this program continues to be able to operate in our area.”
In 2022 the volunteers put in 255 hours on 41 tasks, with an average team attendance of 11 people on each one though a field search can involve up to 30. A response is typically measured in hours. Generally speaking, a volunteer will be on the task for a maximum eight hours before fresh people are called in, if necessary.
South Fraser Search and Rescue doesn’t have somebody waiting at a base ready to go, like you would have with an ambulance station or a firehall. Not all search and rescue members are able to respond all of the time.
“People do shockingly have lives outside of volunteering,” Wallwork notes. “They will receive a pager and the system will page them and if somebody’s available to respond they reply yes, if they’re not, which happens from time to time that they reply no, then we’ve got the great benefit of if we’re having a day when our members, something just isn’t happening for them to have that availability to come right that instant, and we need more people, we can call in mutual aid.”
That assistance might come from the Central Fraser Valley, or Coquitlam Ridge-Meadows, “and from time to time we’ll bring in our friends over at North Shore as well, although they’re kind of a little busy with their own stuff most of the time.”
All 2,800 search and rescue volunteers throughout the province are trained to a common standard and Wallwork says it’s “a very strong system here in B.C.” All take a 70-hour course through the Justice Institute of British Columbia, learning about navigating, communication and documentation among other things. There’s also a three-day course for team leaders, a four-day course for managers and training related to swift water rescue and boat operation.
“It’s certainly not something where you can sign up one day and go from zero to hero in a day,” Wallwork stresses. “You’re very much in it for the long haul.”
Sometimes a search will take volunteers out on the water, mostly on the Fraser River. Sometimes it’s easier to search a dyke from the water.
“When somebody goes missing there’s this massive area that needs to be searched. You can’t all do that from a vehicle.”
Bodies are recovered from time to time.
“Not all searches have that strong positive outcome and yet a recovery is still a success – it gives family closure. Is it an outcome we like? Of course not. But it gives them closure.
“When there’s incidents that close bridges, to put it somewhat delicately, and trying to provide that closure for the families. I’d like to say we have 100 per cent success, no search and rescue team ever has that. But providing that mapping, showing everywhere a person’s been, I like to think that at least to give families comfort that this massive effort was put through, and it’s not for lack of effort or lack of trying.”
Mostly, he says, people are just “grateful somebody cared.”