To Pay or Not to Pay: British Columbia’s Volunteer Search and Rescue Model Under Scrutiny


The province of British Columbia’s search and rescue teams are certainly kept busy. People can’t help but be drawn to the province’s incredible natural environment: it’s almost impossible to resist the lure of the snow-capped mountains and endless stretches of forest. Unfortunately, sometimes curious adventurers get themselves into trouble. That’s where search and rescue teams come in. More than 2,500 people throughout the province volunteer their time and put themselves into potentially life-threatening situations to help hikers, climbers, skiers, snowboarders and other outdoor adventurers who have injured themselves, gotten lost, or are otherwise in over their head.

A member of one of the province’s search and rescue teams recently spoke out about the volunteer model presently used—namely, that it is unsustainable. The paid/unpaid aspect was just one of the concerns raised about the current system, and it has people talking. Should search and rescue groups continue to be volunteer-based, or should members be paid? Here’s a look at both sides of the debate.

If it Ain’t Broke…
Historically, search and rescue throughout the province has relied entirely on volunteers. It seems to work: 95% of subjects are found or rescued within 24 hours of a call being placed. If the system works, why change?

But is it Sustainable?
Sure, the number of calls might be manageable for now, but as more and more people head out into the back country to explore, there are likely to be more incidents. Search and rescue groups are already seeing an increasing trend in the number of calls coming in. The present system might work for now, but is it sustainable? Do we need to wait for it to break before we fix it—and if so, will it be too late?

The Current Model Saves Money
The British Columbia Search and Rescue Associated estimates that the by having its members volunteer, the province saves more than $5,000,000 in potential salaries. That’s a good chunk of dough.

If You Want to Make Money, You Have to Spend Some
There’s no doubt that moving from an unpaid to a paid format is going to cost money. But consider one of the drivers of the increase in search and rescue calls: nature-based tourism. Tourists are being drawn to the province for the accessibility of the wilderness, and outdoor activity-related businesses continue to explode. The costs of a paid search and rescue system would be a small percentage of the money brought in by tourists lured by our beautiful environment.

Volunteers Aren’t Complaining (At Least Not Out Loud)
It takes work to become a ground search and rescue volunteer: you need to commit to training and ongoing education, you sometimes need to supply your own gear, and you need to be available when you’re needed. But still, people are eager and willing to do this. Volunteer members take pride in their roles within their communities. If people are willing to help unpaid, then why start meddling with paid work?

They Need to Earn a Living, Too!
While search and rescue volunteers try their best to be available when needed, the reality is that most of them need a job that pays the bills. Since calls can’t be predicted, work schedules cannot always accommodate potential emergencies. That means that there are no guarantees that volunteers will be available when needed.

Maybe there is a middle ground. Unofficial proposals have suggested having a core team of paid, highly specialized volunteers (like Helicopter Rescue Technicians) while having most other positions remain volunteer.

So what are the next steps? Formal proposals, lots of red tape, and plenty of comments from the many parties involved. Search and rescue volunteers save lives. Despite our best efforts, accidents sometimes happen. You never know when you’ll need to rely on these hard-working people, so let’s make sure they receive the recognition (and, if necessary, compensation) that they deserve.