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Search and rescue volunteers work to keep waterways safe

Over 1,000 volunteers help keep mariners safe; headquarters based in Sooke
Francois Michaud, the marine simulator trainer at the East Sooke RCMSAR headquarters describes the training provided on the simulator. (Tim collins / Sooke News Mirror)

Pat Quealey takes great pride in the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue service in B.C.

As RCMSAR’s CEO, he wants to ensure the men and women who volunteer their time and sometimes risk their lives to protect others along B.C.’s rugged coastline are given the credit they deserve.

“I want to point out that we are a non-profit charity with 1,000 volunteers who dedicate their time and energy at 33 separate stations in B.C. to help keep the public safe when they are out on the water,” Quealey said.

“These people quite rightly feel a great sense of achievement and satisfaction that their service is keeping people safe out on the water. And they should.”

Quealey said the staff who man the stations in B.C. 24/7 are volunteers who undergo hundreds of hours of training and service to the public. They also undertake fundraising to buy the equipment they need to do their job.

RCMSAR standard is to react to any situation within 30 minutes of a call for help.

READ MORE: Sooke search and rescue station under scrutiny after crash

To drive the point home, Black Press was invited to tour the specialized equipment at the training facility at RCMSAR headquarters in East Sooke, located on the shoreline in what was once a Roman Catholic church retreat.

“We have a marine simulator here that’s one of the few in Canada. It’s a training platform that allows us to safely train our future coxswains and other volunteers to the highest level possible,” Quealey said.

”The candidates who come here for training give up several days of their time and live here on the site. They miss work and are away from their families, just to qualify for the certification that will allow them to volunteer even more time out on the water.”

Francois Michaud, the marine simulator trainer, said a key part of the training involves the simulator.

“We use this simulator to practice all kinds of scenarios to ensure that, if mistakes are made, they are made on the simulator and not out on the water,” Michaud said.

“There are cameras inside the simulator as well, so that instructors in the control area can track, not just the actions of the crew, but the facial expressions and reactions to the stress of the situation.”

The simulator technology can reproduce any maritime area in any conditions and are designed to test the volunteer’s knowledge and judgment in a variety of scenarios.

Quealey also highlighted the partnerships the RCMSAR service has forged across the province.

“Beyond the relationship, we have with the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Air Force, local fire departments and the RCMP, we are always renewing and establishing new partnerships and relationships,” he said.

“We recently signed an MOU (memorandum of understanding) with the Red Cross so that, even in incidents not maritime based, we can provide support in incident command.”

A similar arrangement in the past has allowed RCMSAR to provide command support in forest fire emergencies.

Quealey pointed to another initiative where his service is involving Indigenous communities along the B.C. coast to forge partnerships and assist in training.

“This is a real two-way street, actually. The people in these communities are often already mariners and have tremendous background knowledge,” Quealey said.

“They need some added instruction in search and rescue, but we recognize that we have as much to learn from them as they have from us. You can see from the responses of those communities in the Leviathan II and Queen of the North situations.”

READ MORE: TSB to release report into deadly capsizing of Leviathan II

Quealey reinforced the RCMSAR is a service proud of the professional attitude of its staff and volunteers and that work hard to maintain its reputation for professionalism.

Darren Forrester, a volunteer at the training centre to qualify for his coxswain certification, summed up his experience simply.

“I’ve been with the RCMSAR as a volunteer for four years. There’s a tremendous amount you have to learn to do this job, but this is a really good group of people who really care about what they do.”

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RCMSAR has a series of partnerships with a variety of agencies and services, including the Royal Canadian Airforce. (RCMSAR)
Volunteers train and respond to emergencies in all conditions. (RCMSAR)
RCMSAR cooperates with land-based SAR units to provide logistic support when needed. (RCMSAR)
The B.C. RCMSAR service is made up of roughly 1,000 volunteers who give up their own time to serve the communities in which they live. (RCMSAR)
The RCMSAR service in B.C. operates 33 stations to assist those in peril along the province’s coastline. (RCMSAR)