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'This is not a 9 to 5 job'

It takes a special breed of person to volunteer with search and rescue – the faint of heart need not apply.

"Our guys have to know exactly what to do without having to think about it. And the way to do that is to train, and train, and train."

Leigh Pearson is search manager of the Vernon Search and Rescue squad; the only SAR-techs outside the military trained in helicopter winch rescue. 

Search and rescue training is extensive. Even after being accepted, the volunteer must then complete an eight-week provincial government training course. 

The Vernon squad comprises about 60 members. The ones who make the team are those in it for the right reasons, says Pearson.

"The ones that want to be a hero, they don't last very long." They end up dropping out, says Pearson.

"I know I do it because I am giving back to the community that I grew up in. I want to help people, and it is the right thing to do. Somebody needs help, let's go do what we can," he says.

The heart of Vernon Search and Rescue is its family dynamic, something that has been cultivated over decades. 

"Everyone is equal. Everbody has their right to speak their opinion and offer suggestions ... we have our squabbles like any family does but they are usually very minor," Pearson says with a laugh.

We need to take care of our members.

The volunteer team gets called out to several recovery missions a year. 

"We approach it like you would any other search. We assume that our subject will be found alive, and we go on that basis," says Pearson.

The mission is treated as any another search: "Let's go find this guy while there is still a chance."

Whenever there is a fatality or particularly stressful situation, a critical incident debrief is done.

It usually happens a day or two after the mission, and a psychologist is brought in to talk the group through their experience.

"I know, personally, it has saved my mental state more than once to be able to sit down and talk it through with my friends and my colleagues and other SAR groups," says Pearson.

"When I first became a member, it was just kind of suck it up and get on with it kind of thing, but that changed fairly quickly.

"We rely on these people, and if we are going to mistreat them and ignore what their complaints are or their symptoms, we are kind of shooting ourselves in the foot." 

"Very rarely do we hear about the outcome ... It leaves a bit of a void."

For any first responder, finding meaning in the work they do is what helps to mitigate the stress associated with traumatic events.

Pearson has seen a lot as a volunteer, but even so, still gets blindsided from time to time.

He talks about the time he and some other members saved some men in the backcountry, only to have one of them throw a beer at them as they drove away. 

Or the time he heard on the radio about a woman who died from her injuries, just a few weeks after his crew helped save her life. 

But what stays with Pearson is the appreciation shown by the community.

About two years ago Vernon Search and Rescue saved a man out on Okanagan Lake.

"It was really touch and go," he says, but they were able to save the man's life.

As a show of appreciation, the man's wife and his two kids made the team a thank you.

"And that was amazing, says Pearson. "That was really cool."

That thank you is still up on the wall of the Vernon Search and Rescue building.

"Family members of our members, husbands and wives and children and their support, is absolutely vital. If our members do not have the support of their immediate family and their significant others, it just does not work."

*To read all six stories in Front-line Frequencies click here.



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