VANCOUVER, B.C. – A national search and rescue association says a lawsuit that prompted the search team in Golden, B.C., to shut down is having a “ripple effect” across the country.
Golden and District Search and Rescue suspended service after a Quebec skier named it in a lawsuit last month.
Gilles Blackburn is seeking damages from the Golden search and rescue team, as well as the RCMP and Kicking Horse Resort, after he and his wife spent nine days lost in the wilderness. He claims the three organizations didn’t do enough to save him and his wife, who died during the ordeal.
Now, search and rescue teams throughout B.C. and Alberta are considering folding, while the head of a Manitoba group is expressing relief that years of paying heavy insurance premiums appears to be paying off.
Harry Blackmore, president of the Search and Rescue Volunteers Association of Canada, said he’s been fielding calls from across the country from groups worried they too could be at risk.
“It could have a ripple effect right across the country as far as volunteers are concerned,” Blackmore said Tuesday.
“Volunteers across the country (could start) wondering if they should be into this or not. Without volunteers, this program just can’t work.”
Blackmore said this is the first time he’s heard of a volunteer search and rescue team being sued.
“I’m hearing a lot of concern right now. We’ve had a lot of calls from our volunteer associations across the country wondering who’s covered, who’s not covered.”
He said the association is encouraging search and rescue groups to check their insurance policies to ensure the search teams and the societies that run them are adequately protected.
In B.C., the provincial government covers volunteers for liability, but the societies are responsible for getting their own coverage.
The Golden team has expressed concerns that the province’s coverage kicks in only when searchers are called in to duty and not if a proper search isn’t launched.
Blackmore said 15,000 volunteers conduct about 2,000 searches in Canada every year. For now, he said none of the organizations outside B.C. have shut down.
In B.C., search and rescue teams in Cranbrook and Fernie are considering pulling the plug. Kamloops has expressed its concern about the Golden lawsuit and Kimberley Search and Rescue ceased operations for almost a week before resuming Monday.
On Tuesday, search and rescue volunteers in Vernon said they have given the province 60 days to protect rescuers from potential lawsuits. If it fails to follow through, the Vernon team says it will completely withdraw its services.
In Alberta, some volunteer search teams are talking about calling it quits.
“We’re all sort of re-evaluating and looking at all of the insurance issues now,” said Monica Ahlstrom, president of Search and Rescue Alberta.
“At this time, all of the teams are still up and functioning and I think most intend to remain so but definitely we’ll be reviewing the entire insurance issue not only with the teams, but also with the government of Alberta.”
Ahlstrom said about one-quarter of the teams in Alberta have no insurance.
“Everybody has concerns and support for the Golden group itself. We share some of the similar concerns,” she said.
“If this is us, how are we going to be affected?”
She said the Golden team is an especially important one for Albertans. Golden is less than 100 kilometres from the Alberta border.
“A lot of the people they look for are ironically from Alberta because of snowmobiles and avalanches. It affects Alberta that way as well.”
Blackburn and Marie-Josee Fortin, 44, were skiing from the top of a lift within the Kicking Horse Resort when they became lost on Feb. 15.
Blackburn claims that between Feb. 17 and 21, all three organizations were informed of SOS signals he stamped into the snow in the mountains near Golden, 700 kilometres northeast of Vancouver, but a search was not launched.
Fortin, died of hypothermia seven days into the ordeal.
While many search and rescue teams have expressed concern since Blackburn’s lawsuit was filed, Manitoba Search and Rescue isn’t one of them.
“We make sure we’re properly insured,” president George Leonard said.
“We really punished ourselves the first few years paying heavy amounts of insurance but now I’m really glad we did.”
A spokesperson for B.C.’s Provincial Emergency Program said Tuesday that talks with the Golden team are ongoing.
On Monday, acting executive director Chris Duffy said it’s his understanding that the Golden team has the required insurance coverage.
The Golden team has said it will continue the suspension of its services until it gets clarity from the province on its coverage.
B.C. Solicitor General Kash Heed said Tuesday he plans to meet with search and rescue officials to try and hammer out a solution that works for all parties.
“We are going to be meeting in the next couple of weeks and we’re going to problem-solve around this issue and hopefully reach a resolution,” Heed said.
He stressed that he does not want to see any more search and rescue teams in the province fold.
“They do an absolutely outstanding job. They’re volunteers. The work that they do is needed here in the province. We respect their work and we appreciate their work .”