Monday 23 July 2018

SAR in the Victorian Backcountry

We're all responsible adults and carry some type of emergency communication device when we're going on our backcountry adventures, right? But what actually happens when we push the SOS button or call 000[1]? Who's in charge for the whole search & rescue kaboodle when the fluffy white is around?

 Who is getting me out of there if shit hits the fan? 

Police SAR training on steep snow
First the good news: In Victoria there are kick-ass professionals who will run the show. The Victoria Police Search and Rescue Squad has high training standards and therefore working with these guys  is quite delightful. According to their website they "provide specialist expertise, advice and practical assistance in land search and rescue" which basically means they're calling the shots.

General Backcountry Rescue

What happens next really depends on conditions and the type of your emergency. A broken leg at Cleve Cole Hut in wonderful sunshine and zero wind is a more a job for a helicopter than bringing in the big search party. Unfortunately people don't tend to get lost or hurt in perfect conditions but when it's shitty out there. Like in really shitty you wouldn't let your dog out. Let's assume Flopsy the unfortunate climber broke his leg in typical Bogong weather - zero visibility and 80km/h wind. For a bit of flavour we add that Flopsy couldn't provide GPS coords and then his phone went flat. You can literally hear the SAR Squad cheering.

Obviously the Airwing won't be much help and in order to find Flopsy, you'll need boots on the ground. Most likely there will be a call-out to various SES units as well as BSAR volunteers which have done their steep snow & ice (SSI) training. These volunteers will venture out under the Police SAR Squad instructions and if they find Flopsy,  A couple of years back something similar happened and the poor guy had to be hauled up from the south-side of Bogong only to be sledded and carried down the north-face (Eskdale Spur).


Field Structure of Land SAR in Victoria
Let's have a closer look at the field structure of land SAR operations. Keep in mind that this is a generalisation and sometimes the Police SAR Squad doesn't even get involved. E.g. if you experience the misfortune of a climbing accident at Arapiles, the SES Horsham with their Arapiles Rescue Group and Ambulance Victoria might assist you. AT this point I can absolutely recommend you  NOT to get yourself into trouble on crag with no top access. The local SES and CFA don't have the procedures for bottom-up rescues and it's unlikely that this situation will change within the coming 12 months. I know - that's really bad!
Anyway: I'm focusing on winter adventures in the Victorian High Country. The SAR Squad can tap into various resources of government agencies, volunteers and police units. That includes the Police Airwing, SES, CFA, Parks Victoria or BSAR.

Out of all the units in the chart there are only a handful which can handle snowy conditions. The Police SAR Squad themselves, Ski Patrols and parts of BSAR. While the cops are the brain of the operation, BSAR provides the muscles. Ski Patrols normally only take part in the vicinity of resorts but you'll never know how creative an Incident Controller can be to get the job done.

Long Term Strategy

Since I'm not privileged to any government information regarding the future land SAR strategy, this is just my take on it. Globally mountain rescue organisations face a number of challenges that lie in the current developments and in the changed behaviour of the general population. Changed recreational behaviour and increasing tourism in alpine areas mean a stronger burden for rescue services.

In Australia trendy sports draw people into once-deserted landscapes. Snow cannons, snow factories and floodlights extend the ski season as well as the ski day, mountain bike parks and half-pipes mean new areas of application. At the same time back-country gear - especially Alpine Touring skis - became far more available in Australia over the past five years. Bundle that with increasing ticket prices[2], entry fees and hire costs in the resort and you'll see a natural migration from the packed slopes to the backcountry. Add to this development a the growing proportion of older and mobile people with more and more free time and the consequences are not only an increasing numbers of call-outs in general but also on weekdays. 
Hiking vs. Bushwalking since 2004

So far the capacity of volunteers in land SAR was sufficient but with more people venturing into the High Country more incidents are likely and we might see the point where capabilities exceed requirements. Obviously in the past the above shown structure had an interesting dynamic: If more people venture out bushwalking, more people will sign up with bushwalking clubs and some of them filter through to BSAR. That kept some sort of balance.

However modern backcountry users are not part of that dynamic. There is no simple pathway which eventually increases the number of experienced skiers, mountaineers and backcountry boarders within BSAR at the same rate as these snow-sports are growing. BSAR is recruiting itself from hikers who overcame the increasing stigma of Bushwalking Clubs being old-men's-clubs.

The change in recreational behaviour is also reflected how outdoorsy people organise themselves these days. Social media, meetup groups and far more accessible knowledge on how to access backcountry locations make even the requirement to join any outdoor club optional. In the past you literally learned the ropes by meeting up with more experienced people and doing fun stuff. This mentor-mentee relationship was a big draw card of most clubs but it lost a bit attraction: "Ask quirky  Bruce or watch a YouTube video? I'd go for YouTube ... what could possibly go wrong?" You get the idea.

While the number of backcountry users is increasing and the outdoor industry is booming, the number of competent SAR volunteers might be not enough in the future. In my opinion there needs to be a bigger focus on preventing incidents and adapting to changed circumstances:

  • Support Mentor-Mentee relationships outside of clubs
    People who don't get themselves into trouble don't need rescue. This is one reason why Mountaineering Melbourne is organising open social nights.
  • Provide Safety Advice
    The Kiwi Mountain Safety Council and the Victorian Mountain Sports Collective are good examples. EMV / the state / whoever from the government would do good to get regular avalanche, condition and weather bulletins out. Maybe give a grant to MSC to do that.
  • Restructure BSAR
    I know this is controversial and probably won't happen but I think BSAR can benefit from opening up to individuals without paying to volunteer. Yes currently you need to put coin on the table to volunteer for BSAR - unlike SES or CFA. If you would remove this awkward hurdle, you could tap into other clubs, groups and capable individuals  as well as creating a flow-through of competent outdoor enthusiasts - especially non-hikers. Targeting skiers, mountaineers and backcountry boarders to join wouldn't go astray.

In the end there's room for improvement on the level of professionalism among the Victorian SAR volunteering organisations. If you're looking at how the German Bergwacht and the Swiss ARS are organised, it is quite a  refreshing eye-opener.

I hope this sheds some light on the mystery of land SAR operations. If you have any question post them in the comments or drop me a line.


P.S.: I am an active call-out member of BSAR with a SSI qualification.

[1] Pro-tip: When you're calling 000 from the backcountry: Ask the operator for the cops! Not ambulance or anyone else! Giving GPS coordinates to Ambulance Victoria can be quite entertaining but not in an emergency situation.

[2] An Australian non-discount adult day-pass is roughly $60-$100 more expensive than a comparable European ticket.

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