RCMSAR Northern Stations Visit — “Northern Exposure”

On Friday, March 9th, RCMSAR CEO, Pat Quealey and Director of Operations, Jason van der Valk, along with two colleagues from Emergency Management BC (EMBC), departed Victoria by plane to begin our 5-day tour to visit our members in the Northern RCMSAR Stations which are located in Kitimat, Hartley Bay, Prince Rupert, Lax Kw’alaams , Masset and a visit with the Station Leader from our Kitkatla Station.

Landing in the he small northern town of Terrace, our journey began with long-time Kitimat RCMSAR member, Duncan Peacock, graciously delivering us Kitimat where we met with members of that station.

Diving right in, over the next couple of hours discussing the operations of their station, the station crew engaged us with discussions about their membership, area of operations and their challenges and successes within their station. Reciprocally, Pat and I delivered key information to the membership on the newly developed Coxswain Leadership courses, information on the recent EMBC MOU and housed a successful question and answer period.  Our EMBC colleagues took the opportunity to further engage with the members in discussion around the PrepardnessBC “High Ground Hike” program which is being implemented across coastal BC.

There was plenty more opportunity to continue our discussions during the next morning and early Saturday departure from the Kitimat boat house, heading south down the snow-capped mountainous peaks of the Douglas Channel, and to our next northern RCMSAR Station visit, located approximately 100km from Kitimat; the small Gitga’at First Nation village of Hartley Bay.

RCMSAR crew from Kitimat with RCMSAR HQ personnel ready to depart to Hartley Bay

Around 1030am, the two vessels from Kitimat moored in Hartley Bay and greeted dockside by the RCMSAR crews and the Orme G Stuart, the RCMSAR Type 2 from Station 64 in Prince Rupert, who joined us on the visit and arrived in Hartley Bay before us.

Making his way down the dock, Eddie Robinson, a long time RCMSAR member and leader of the Hartley Bay Emergency Services Division, warmly welcomed us into his close-knit community.  Meandering through the network of wooden boardwalks lined with homes; we strolled past a prominent red-roofed church and entered the building where we’d sit to discuss RCMSAR operations, which has been tightly integrated into their emergency services programs in their community for many years. With an agenda, much like the previous night’s with Kitimat, we took the opportunity to learn more about this remote community. We all sat with admiration and respect after listening to the RCMSAR members who, almost 12 years ago to the day, rescued 99 persons after the fateful voyage of the BC Ferries “Queen of the North” which struck Gil Island late at night and sank below the surface into the dark frigid waters.

After our conversations, we walked to their local fire station and viewed their equipment and vehicles which support their community with first response and medical assistance.  We then gathered in front of the community centre, took photos, shook hands, and thanked everyone for their time and shared knowledge. We made our way down to the docks where we said our goodbyes to the Kitimat Station, hopped on-board the Orme G Stuartand began our next leg of our journey, the city of Prince Rupert.

RCMSAR crews from Hartley Bay, Kitimat, Prince Rupert and HQ stand in front of the Hartley Bay Community Centre.

Heading north, we charted our course up the Grenville channel, passing by the diving site of the Brig.-Gen. M.G. Zalinski vessel which sunk in 1946. This wreck is worthy of our attention as it notoriously has continued to leak oil after all these years and has been the subject of recent remediation efforts.

A few hours later, we docked the boat alongside their 733 Zodiac Hurricane, at the new moorage facility for the Prince Rupert Station. Later that night we visited the Prince Rupert Community Centre and took part in their station in-water training exercises which included a life raft deployment presentation and PFD competency testing. Crews also donned survival suits and entered the water to further their experiences in a range of approved PPE options. The station graciously hosted MLA Jennifer Rice, and her partner, to a wonderful catered dinner where crews mingled, shared stories and asked questions. This blend of training, socializing and kinship epitomized the strength of RCMSAR volunteering that simply can’t be measured by a statistic.

Pool training in Prince Rupert with members of the Prince Rupert RCMSAR Station.

On Sunday, crews gathered at the Prince Rupert dock to prepare for of our 1-hour voyage north to the Lax Kw’alaams station.. When we arrived, we were welcomed by Jim Henry, the Station Leader. Along with Jim, was an RCMP officer who would also take part in our meeting at the local Fire Hall, where Jim is also the Fire Chief in their community. Furthermore, many of the RCMSAR members are also First Responders within their local fire service. For the next few hours we learned more about their community and how RCMSAR integrates into their community emergency preparedness plans.

RCMSAR Lax Kw ‘alaams Station Leader, Jim Henry along with RCMP constable, welcome us to Lax Kw’ alaams

That evening we enjoyed exploring areas around Prince Rupert, including a drive up the Skeena River to see Bald Eagles feasting on the Ooligans during their spawning run which is a First Nations staple around here.

The following day was spent in Prince Rupert attending meetings shoreside. We met with the Prince Rupert Fire Chief to go over the EMBC MOU and then met with the Prince Rupert Port Authority and toured their new operations building. Finally, Pat met with an old colleague, Maurie Hurst, who is the Northwest Regional Manager with EMBC.  These meetings are one more step towards RCMSAR ability to respond to humanitarian aid emergencies in support of local and Provincial authorities.

The next day, Pat and I, hopped on-board a float plane and took off for Masset, located approximately 45 minutes by air. We were met at the float plane dock by RCMSAR member, Chris Ashurst, who escorted us to their training and meeting facility, which is shared with the local BCEHS station. It is just a stone’s throw from the RCMSAR rescue vessel launch. At the station, The Station Leader, Ross Hayes, was onhand to make us feel welcome.  Chris works full time with Parks Canada as well he is a member with the Ground Search and Rescue established in Masset and Ross is is a full-time paramedic with BCAS in Masset. Many of the other members are also first responders. the trend here in our Northern Regions was not lost on us. Many members are well integrated into their community providing first response in many capacities, many wearing different hats.

RCMSAR HQ visiting the Masset station.

Unfortunately, the visit with Masset was too short, but it was well worth the time spent with our volunteers and it certainly provided us with a better understanding of this station on Haida Gwaii, who has just placed an order a new Type II vessel. With the passion of the members and the capabilities of a Type 2, Station 45 is on the cusp of an exciting future.

If I could sum up what this trip meant to me and what I experienced and learned, I would have to say a much better understanding of the challenges faced with our more remote, northern stations. These are remote operating stations who are, for the most part, the only first responders on the waters in very remote areas. Safety is imperative. Without our members dedicaitons to public safety, help, if required, would take many, many hours.

But one thing that stuck out is the sheer sense of unity and community within. Personally, RCMSAR for me, is very focused. I play a small part in my town’s emergency plans. We are not nearly as integrated as our northern colleagues.

Many of these people also wear many first responder hats. We met members who were not just volunteers with RCMSAR, but were involved with their local Fire Rescue, Ground SAR, Paramedics, Parks Canada and who work in their cities Emergency Operations Centre. RCMSAR is only one small part for these people and many have a tremendous amount of knowledge around community preparedness. This is not just volunteering, this is a way of life for them.

I brought back a better understanding of their challenges, from training to logistics to support. I also brought back a lot of fond memories and made some new friends. Station members also got to understand RCMSAR corporately and had the opportunity to comment on the alignment of that to northern operations.

I will never forget this experience. I thank each of our stations for their time and welcoming us with open arms. I hope it was as beneficial to them as it was to me.

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