Members of Ahousaht First Nation and Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation participated in two days of search and rescue (SAR) training led by the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) at the Tofino CCG Lifeboat Station.
Representatives from Tofino RCMP, Parks Canada, Westcoast Inland SAR, and Royal Canadian Marine-SAR Long Beach also attended the training, which involved classroom theory and on-water exercises.
The overarching purpose of the training was to work on interagency communication and to develop a team approach to maritime SAR or “pod mentality,” CCG superintendent Clay Evans told the Westerly News.
“It’s really important to know that we can work together in that spirit,” said Ahousaht emergency response coordinator Alec Dick, who was one of the mariners to respond to the Leviathan II disaster in October.
“It was a really good working experience all the way around…Especially for some of our younger ones that are getting familiar with our operations.”
On the second day of training, which was done in relentless rain and slightly choppy sea conditions, the organizations joined forces for a mock marine search and rescue conducted around Vargas Island.
The mock scenario involved two blue tandem kayaks with a total of four persons reported missing.
“They did really well. It wasn’t a complex scenario, but that’s the whole idea. We’re not about complexity, it’s all about the communications piece; without that it’s utter chaos,” Evans said.
“As long as everybody is on the same page and communicating effectively internally and externally to the best of their ability then you’ll have a successful outcome.”
Generally speaking, each organization operates on unique radio channels. RCMP have their own channel, CCG have their own channel, and First Nations have their own frequencies.
“To be able to communicate collectively to one person has always been a challenge because we’re all so individuals in our agencies and groups,” said CCG member Jeff Macdonald.
“Normally, when an Ahousaht emergency response team goes out, we can have as much as 23 boats involved and we all go to the channel that we designate, which is 71. That’s how we communicated with our crew,” Dick said.
“But today, we have 82 Alpha,” explained Macdonald. “So whoever is going to do the communicating for each of the groups has got to do it through VHF 82 Alpha. That’s what we’re using today.”
For the purpose of the training exercise, Ahousaht only had two boats in play, which is why they were able to operate on the same frequency.
“We didn’t have the best of radios on board,” said Dick, who borrowed his brothers’ boat for the mock search and rescue.
“That was one of our downfalls and we recognize that. There’s some upgrading on our part that we have to work with.”
Evans said the role of First Nations in the federal SAR system is the same as all other mariners.
“Whether it’s a First Nations or a fish boat that happens to be going by, we call that a vessel of opportunity because that’s basically the common mantra of the sea. People help other people in difficult situations at sea,” he said.
RCM-SAR has established units with boats within a couple First Nations communities on the north coast and Evans said there is good opportunity to expand the RCM-SAR resources and training to First Nations in Clayoquot Sound.
“There is funding, you’re insured, you’re paid per metre, per hour, to go out on a SAR call, there’s training and so forth so that might the route to go,” he said of the RCM-SAR initiative.
“What we’re going to look at program-wise is making sure we can do these exercises at least once a year and also offer up some sort of training for the boat drivers.”
The Ahousaht First Nation recommended that the organizations meet at least three times a year.