Canadian Search & Rescue Team Lead Stef Clavette watches out the tail of the CH149 Cormorant during training missions over the Comox Valley and Strathcona Park region on August 10, 2011.
Photograph by: Lance Sullivan, Postmedia News
Exceptionally fit and meticulously trained, Canadian Forces search-and-rescue technicians (SAR techs) in British Columbia operate in a squadron whose four-word motto says it all: That Others May Live.
The squadron's hangar contains a staggering variety of gear. They have snowmobiles, a Zodiac inflatable boat, a jet boat, climbing and mountaineering equipment, Arctic-grade clothing, scuba gear, wetsuits, drysuits, night-vision goggles, parachutes, medical equipment, stretchers, litters, six twin-prop Buffalo planes and five Cormorant helicopters.
SAR techs — 40 at 442 Squadron and 140 across Canada — must have at least four years of service in the Canadian Forces before they can enter the specialty. Once accepted at the SAR school, they embark on a yearlong course covering advanced life-saving medical care; survival training; Arctic training; mountaineering, climbing and ice-climbing; parachuting; scuba diving; sea operations; human tracking; and avalanche-rescue training.
That preparation is kept up to date through constant operational exercises.
"We do an intense amount of training," says Sgt. Dwayne Guay, who has made nearly 600 parachute jumps. "The more you train, the less nervous you get and the more comfortable you get. We train for the worst-case scenario."
Since 1953, more than 50 Canadian Forces search-and-rescue personnel have died in the line of duty, six of them from what is now 442 Squadron. The school at Canadian Forces Base Comox where all Canada's SAR techs learn the trade is named for Cpl. Philip Young, a 442 SAR tech killed in April 1992 when the helicopter hoisting him on a cable during a search operation crashed.
For SAR tech Mst.-Cpl. George Beatteay, switching from his job as a navy helicopter pilot to search-and-rescue work was a natural choice. "This is what I wanted to do for years," Beatteay says. "All the stuff that we do, like the diving, the jumping, the climbing, that's all stuff I do in my spare time."
Because a Buffalo plane flies faster than a Cormorant helicopter — about 400 kilometres per hour compared to 260 — the Buffalo usually arrives first and begins the search. SAR techs may parachute from the plane, and the crew at night will drop illumination flares on small parachutes to aid in spotting and rescuing.
Although a crashed aircraft may seem like an easy object to spot from the air, finding such accident sites can be extremely difficult, especially in forested areas, says Capt. Julian White, a Buffalo pilot.
"If you're out looking and those trees are 150 or 200 feet tall, imagine a plane being at the bottom — it's so hard to see," White says, noting it took a week to find a small plane that crashed near Penticton, B.C., a year ago, killing four.
SAR techs are trained to deploy from both the Buffalo and the Cormorant, parachuting from the plane or being lowered on a cable from the helicopter if, as often occurs, there's no place to land an aircraft.
Maintaining extreme fitness is crucial for men whose job can require nearly superhuman strength and endurance. When SAR techs are on duty and not on a rescue, preparing equipment or training, they're often using the small gym on the base.
Because the rescuers must arrive on scene prepared to provide life-saving medical care and protect patients and themselves from extreme weather, they carry up to 50 kilograms of gear when they hit the ground.
The rescue work may involve mountain-climbing, carrying injured people through rough terrain, dragging heavy sleds or tearing apart wrecked aircraft to get to victims.
"SAR tech boys are people I've always admired," says retired air force navigator Rob Reid, 70, the only survivor of a 1966 Canadian Forces SAR training-flight plane crash into the Hope Slide that killed five. "I always took the view that jumping out of aircraft was not very healthy, but that's what they're trained to do. They're quite good at it."
The military SAR team works closely with other search-and-rescue organizations, including the Canadian Coast Guard and volunteer SAR groups throughout B.C.
All Canadian Forces search-and-rescue technicians (SAR techs) are trained as Level 2 paramedics, capable of giving advanced life-saving care. "Once on scene, we are the medical providers," says Guay. To perform treatments for which they haven't been specifically trained, SAR techs may speak to an on-call doctor by satellite phone.
Dropping from aircraft by parachute or cable, or stepping off hovering or landed helicopters, SAR techs wear packs containing pain killers and other drugs, a blood-pressure cuff, intravenous kit, splinting equipment, neck-injury collars and other equipment.
For rescues of multiple casualties, the SAR team may drop by parachute a 120-kilogram "clamshell" rig consisting of two steel toboggans sandwiching medical and life-saving supplies. Once retrieved on the ground, the toboggans are loaded with gear and hauled over snow, rock, ice, vegetation or dirt to the rescue site.
The choice of a landing site for parachuting SAR techs is limited by the surroundings of the rescue scene. Boats capsize in raging seas. Planes crash in rough terrain. Mountaineers suffer accidents at high altitude. Dropping out of the sky on a parachute off the back ramp of the Buffalo into ocean, forest or high mountains is risky.
"Jumping out of an airplane isn't completely normal," says SAR tech Sgt. Dwayne Guay, who has made nearly 600 jumps. "It only takes one mistake to put you in a hospital forever."
The squadron frequently responds to incidents involving boat and ship crews in distress. SAR techs are trained to work in frigid waters and tumultuous seas, wearing scuba gear and wetsuits or drysuits.
"We can do entries from the helicopter with all our scuba gear on," says SAR tech Mst.-Cpl. George Beatteay.
Full-face regulators containing communications equipment enable rescuers to work in contaminated environments while in voice contact with rescue aircraft and vessels, even if the rescue divers are inside an overturned ship or sinking plane.
"If we're dealing with an upside-down aircraft or an upside-down boat, you need to be able to communicate: 'I've got a body in here,' or 'I've got a live person,'" says SAR tech Sgt. Dwayne Guay.
For ocean rescues, the SAR team can drop life rafts and a pump that may be used to float a sinking boat.
The locked mountain-rescue room at 442 Squadron's base in Comox is a mountaineer's wet dream. Inside, the walls are hung with carabiners, quick-draws for attaching ropes to anchors, pitons, anchor bolts and wedging nuts, spring-loaded anchor cams that expand into cracks in rock, ice axes, ice screws, ropes, backcountry skis, helmets, harnesses, rock drills, snow shovels and crampons.
"If we've got a guy that's stuck on a rock face or something like that, we can set up anchors and we can (rappel) down to him," says SAR tech Mst.-Cpl. George Beatteay. "Then we either lower him or we raise him."