Serving, searching and rescuing in Richmond

Richmond's dedicated team of Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue volunteers is on the lookout to bolster its crew

“The adrenalin rush starts the second the phone goes off at home.”

A few moments later, Daniel Wei is dialed into an emergency conference call with fellow volunteers on Richmond’s Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (RCMSAR) Station 10 team.

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The blood is now pumping fast among the crew members listening in on the call – which has been initiated by the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria because the Coast Guard needs an assist.

It could be a boat sinking in the Fraser River or on fire out on the Georgia Strait.

There’s always a crew on call – who have to be able to respond to one of two RCMSAR stations in Richmond within 15 minutes – but when it’s an emergency, it’s whoever is closest.

“There’s definitely a level of excitement and some people are drawn to that,” said Wei, an RCMSAR advanced crew member and training facilitator, of what it feels like when the phone rings when he’s on call.

“And then there’s the sense of accomplishment when a well-run mission is completed.”

Even if you’re not on call, “you can still pick it up,” added Eric Symons, Richmond RCMSAR’s recruitment officer, who has been at the station for 10 years.

“An automated message goes out and it goes to all of our phones and then you go into a conference line straight away.

“You then check in and say whether or not you’re going to respond. It’s a little chaotic and it’s a learning curve, for sure.

“(Joint Rescue) looks at what resources they have in the area and call it from there. It’s just the Coast Guard and us. They will obviously task the Coast Guard before us. Plus, we are on a 20-minute or so delay, by the time we get on the water.”

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RCMSAR crew member Eric Symons gets a thrill out of serving the community of Richmond...and from driving fast boats. Alan Campbell photo

Station 10’s operational responsibilities extend as far south as Point Roberts, as far north as Bowen Island, west to the Gulf Islands and east, up the Fraser River to Pitt Lake.

They are tasked all manner of situations, such as broken down boats, sinking boats (they may have hit a log or something), overdue boats and to help with searches for people, including bridge-jumpers.

This month, Station 10 – a 48-strong team which has launches at Steveston Harbour and on the Fraser River’s middle arm - is on a recruitment drive and is looking for about 12 new crew members to train and retain.

In 2018, the 30-year-old station raced to more than 40 missions and completed 93 the previous year. Last year, they conducted 112 exercises.

“We’re not a knitting club and we get into some nasty stuff out there at times and it’s not for everyone,” said Wei, a former courier turned paramedic, who has been with the crew for six years.

“And sometimes, you never really know until you’re out there with people if they’re suited to it.”

Gesturing towards Symons, Wei recalled “That one night at Point Roberts was pretty sketchy. I remember someone saying, ‘yea, this isn’t for me.’

“And we may not find that out until they’ve been on crew for a while. I’m not trying to scare people off, but that’s the reality.”

We said he joined because he wanted a new challenge in his life and has always been interested in being a first responder.

“I came here with zero boating knowledge, I knew nothing about search and rescue.

“But the more time I put into RCMSAR, the more I get out of it. They are willing to invest time and money in me if I put into it. I’ve learned search techniques and navigation courses, first aid, boat handling.

“We do a lot of training. You learn so much here. If you’re looking for a challenge and looking to give back to the community, looking for accomplishment and reward, that would be the major draw.”

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RCMSAR crew member of 10 years Eric Symons tests out some of the equipment aboard one of the station's two search and rescue vessels. Alan Campbell photo

Asked what the make-up of a perfect volunteer RCMSAR crew member looks like, Symons said they can come from all walks of life.

“The ultimate person is someone in the Richmond area, who can get here within 15 minutes of a call,” said Symons, who grew up in Richmond around boats.

“Boating experience and first aid is good, but we can put people through those programs.

“Male or female, it doesn’t matter and we have all ages, right up to retired people on crew.

“We have many people giving back to the community and retired people are great for daytime calls, as are paramedics, who work four days on and four days off.

“We have pilots, first responders, people in finance, dog walkers. We’ve even had people who’ve never been on a boat before.

“We don’t enter the water; the only people that go in the water are the Coast Guard divers. We do a lot of shoreline searches.”

Symons said not too many people stepped forward last year to volunteer and there is a natural drop-off in crew members, due to personal commitments.

“We’re aiming for three recruitment intakes,” added Symons, saying that training weekends are being run on several dates early in the year.

It’s not just search and rescue crew, Station 10 is also looking to beef up its administration and boat maintenance members as well.

Symons said Station 10 has five crews, four that run Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday evening shifts and one on call daytimes. They take it in turns to cover the weekends.

“You have to be on call, sober and be within 15 minutes of responding,” said Symons, explaining that you could be out on the water with a SAR crew within a month, depending on your capability.

“Most of the equipment is paid for by donations, we pay our own vehicle fuel to get to the station.”

As for Symons - who has rescued people from the river after they had a domestic dispute and pulled bridge-jumpers from under the Oak Street Bridge – he gets to “go and race around on fast boats.

“To pay for that, I go out and rescue people. It’s a win-win.”

If you want to be a Symons or a Wei, contact RCMSAR’s Station 10 at RCMSAR10.org/aboutus.

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