Disaster preparedness program expands as volunteers prepare to fight wildfires in 2024


Search and rescue workers never know what will come next: a missing person, a search for a murder weapon, or a man injured by a grizzly bear.

Kevin Atherton of Elkford Search and Rescue was the search leader on a May mission to evacuate an injury victim from the backcountry near the Alberta-British Columbia border.

“The terrain was rugged. It was heavily overgrown and had some pretty steep sections,” Atherton recalls of the mission.

Given the increasing frequency and severity of disasters, search and rescue teams are now being prepared to respond to more requests.

In May 2023, for the first time, volunteers from the Calgary Search and Rescue Association were sent as far north as Grand Prairie to help fight the wildfires.

The Canadian federal government is currently expanding its existing Humanitarian Workforce (HWF) program, which assists non-governmental organizations such as the Canadian Red Cross, St. John Ambulance, the Salvation Army and the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada (SARVAC).

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The expansion is intended to ensure the rapid provision of emergency responders and relief supplies.

The initiative will focus on the needs of vulnerable communities, with an initial emphasis on British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

The head of the Calgary Search and Rescue Association said there are many professionals and trained volunteers who come together to make a difference in the event of a major disaster.

“We're here to support them, the professionals. We're not firefighters. We're not police officers. We're trained volunteers who know what they're doing, and we can actually help the paid professionals and give them more freedom to do their jobs,” said Mark Demong at a CALSARA event in Calgary on Saturday.

Demong said volunteers are assisting firefighters and police by taking on tasks such as setting up roadblocks and evacuating campsites.

He took part in a new two-day course called “Train the Trainer,” which allowed him to pass on his disaster relief knowledge to other volunteers.

“Things like setting up a roadblock, how to shut down utilities, the basics of firefighting, how to scout disaster areas so we can report to a command post that we have severe damage in this area and we want to send people here immediately.”

Demong has worked on disasters such as the Pine Lake tornado and the Calgary floods. He said the new training will help standardize the training of all search and rescue responders.

“I think with the centralization of the HWF program and Search and Rescue Alberta, they are putting all the pieces together so that we can easily deploy when needed,” Demong said.

Demong added that there are now four paid positions in Alberta SAR to coordinate these activities, but volunteers remain the heart of search and rescue.

Atherton said it is rewarding work that helps volunteers learn new skills and sometimes helps save lives.

“You want to help by moving the person to the next stage of care. It's a good feeling – you feel like you've done a job well,” Atherton said.

He said Elkford Search and Rescue would like to double its membership this year.