Canada-wide search and rescue – Metro US

Canada-wide search and rescue

On Sergeant Sean Calis’ first official day on the job as a fully qualified search and rescue technician (SAR Tech), he and his partner got called to a plane crash in northern Quebec.

The two flew up to the snow-covered area, parachuted in, and saved three people.

“What a great career move I’ve made,” Calis thought to himself that day. “I can really make a difference.”

Calis, 39, grew up in London, Ont., and joined the army reserves at 16. Two years later, the army offered him a full-time job, so he dropped out of high school.

As a soldier, Calis did tours in Rwanda and Bosnia. He later finished up his high school diploma in night school, and picked up training and experience in everything from scuba diving to mountain climbing to parachuting. (He served as a paratrooper in the Canadian Airborne Regiment until it was disbanded in 1995.)

But he was away a lot, and that was tough on his wife and two young children. He was looking for a new career when he heard about SAR Techs from a friend.

In 1996, Calis started the year-long application process that involved submitting a resumé, going through interviews and taking both written and fitness tests. He didn’t get one of the coveted 12 training spots that year.

But two years later, he made the cut and went through an intense year of paramedic and rescue training. He was first stationed in Trenton, Ont., then Comox, B.C., and is now back in Trenton. His wife, a dental hygienist, and two kids are used to the moves.

Calls come into the search and rescue location — there are five across Canada and about 130 SAR Techs — at an unpredictable rate. They can get four calls a day, or less than four a week.

In the meantime, they hone their skills. “You’re never done training,” says Calis. Except for weekly paramedic training, they’re outside the rest of the time, practising parachuting, scuba diving and rock climbing.

SAR Techs firstly call on their physical skills on a call. (They need to stay in top form and must retire by age 55.)

But it’s also a mentally demanding job, and they constantly problem solve to deal with issues raised by weather, visibility, temperature and equipment. “The guys I’ve worked with, they’re all very abstract thinkers,” says Calis.

And while you’d think things might get macho and competitive out there, lives are at risk. “The bravado is gone,” says Calis.

“It’s all about the safety.”