Coroner’s Inquest into Search and Rescue Death

December 7, 2012


On November 24, a coroner’s inquest into the death of search and rescue volunteer Sheilah Sweatman released its recommendations. Sweatmen drowned while trying to recover the body of a woman in a vehicle submerged in the Goat River, near Creston, BC (click here for the CBC story).

A documentary TV crew working on a series on SAR filmed her death. The footage was shown at the inquest but has not been made public. The video shows that after Sweatman connected a steel cable onto the submerged vehicle, the vehicle shifted and moved downstream causing Sweatman to be bucked off the raft and her leg entangled in the cable. Sweatman struggled to keep her head above water for more than five minutes. SAR volunteers tried to row to her and swim to her and give her a rope.

Sweatman’s brother had harsh criticism saying there was no heroics, just a bunch of complacent witnesses standing around.

The coroner’s inquest recommended to Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) and the British Columbia Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) the following:

1. That Emergency Management British Columbia (EMBC) expand the existing Swift Water Task Force to include members of search and rescue operations as well as the RCMP, B.C. River Guides Association, B.C. River Outfitters Association, WorkSafeBC and any other appropriate stakeholders.

2. That EMBC and the B.C. Search and Rescue Association (BCSARA) develop universal standards for swift water rescue and recovery training to ensure consistent language and training applications. These universal standards would require all swift water training providers to conform to these prescribed standards.

3. That EMBC and BCSARA develop universal standards for swift water rescue and recovery equipment.

4. That an audit be conducted of all Search and Rescue (SAR) communities to ensure that each SAR community has the required equipment (including personal protective equipment) and training for their respective communities based on their unique areas. Where it is determined that there is a lack of the required equipment and/or training for that area, immediate consultation with BCSARA and EMBC must occur to determine steps to obtain the equipment and/or training with the goal of safety of all SAR members in BC.

5. That EMBC review and evaluate funding models to better support SAR operations, training and equipment similar to Volunteer Fire Departments’ funding.

6. That Swift Water teams use only their own equipment during search and rescue operations whenever possible. If any unfamiliar equipment is introduced into a task, a proper risk assessment must be completed. The appropriate tools for self rescue and companion rescue must be immediately accessible.

7. That the Volunteer Policy and Procedures Manual specifically the policy for “Utilization of SAR Volunteers for SAR Activities Policy” be reviewed by EMBC to clarify and amend, where required, the roles and responsibilities of varying agencies involved in SAR activities. These groups include, but are not limited to SAR, policing agencies, Coroner, Parks Canada, BC Ambulance and Fire Services.

8. That during an operation, a specific Safety Officer be designated whenever possible. This Safety Officer’s position will be their sole function.

9. That EMBC with the assistance of the SAR stakeholders develop a standardized risk assessment tool for use in Swift Water operations.

In my view, most of the recommendations miss the point and are moot. While a coroner’s inquest is not charged with determining fault, these recommendations largely avoid identifying the factors which caused or contributed to Sweatman’s death. Many of the recommendations are neither novel nor new. As BCSARA president Don Bindon – who I had the honour of working with in SAR in the late 1990s while he was with the RCMP – acknowledged as much in saying, “They are not foreign to us at all. We are implementing some of them already and we’re going to implement the rest to the best of our ability.”

The biggest thing though is Recommendation 6 which stated that the appropriate tools for self-rescue and companion rescue must be immediately accessible.

Combining the above recommendation with the maxim in SAR that search and rescuers not be unnecessarily exposed to risk – which in the circumstances of a body recovery where the sense of urgency is minimal ought to mean that the risk exposure should be very low – clearly shows that something went terribly wrong.

Search and rescue is inherently dangerous. Approximately 6 volunteer (unpaid professional) search and rescuers have tragically died in training or missions in BC in the last 20 years; this averages to 0.3 fatalities per year.

Search and rescuers are true heroes that deserve our gratitude. Their professionalism, technical expertise and tolerance for risk are unparalleled. Our thoughts and prayers go to Sheilah Sweatman’s family and friends and to the Nelson Search and Rescue Group.

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