Nunavik search and rescue groups thrive on training exercises
"It’s a great experience. It’s the real-life, operational stuff"
When hunters and campers become overdue or go missing on the land, search and rescue crews have little room for trial and error.
They’re tasked with coordinating the people, equipment and routes to use in searches, knowing that every hour and every day that someone is missing could put them at greater risk.
That’s why a practice run can be helpful.
Last week, members of the northern search and rescue roundtable met in Kuujjuaq to share their challenges and prevention strategies.
Kuujjuaq firefighters, municipal officials, Canadian Rangers and local volunteers got to work hand in hand last week with different response units from across the country, whose numbers included 413 squadron out of Nova Scotia, which deploys Hercules aircraft and Cormorant helicopters for use in northern search and rescue.
Together, the group responded to a common summer scenario in the region: four hunters leave Kuujjuaq mid-week, travelling up the Koksoak River in a freighter canoe.
They were supposed be back in town by Saturday. So when the four hunters — one of whom is diabetic — had yet to return by Sunday, officials launched Training Exercise Aqpik.
That included a ground search along the river’s shoreline and an aerial search carried out by the Hercules. And the crews were fortunate — the weather in Kuujjuaq has been clear and sunny, with temperatures reaching 27 degrees.
Once the group was spotted at a cabin upriver, the Hercules crew notified search and rescue technicians, who used rescue boats to travel to the site.
There, the techs treated one hunter for injuries, and got all four hunters back in Kuujjuaq by early afternoon.
“It’s a great experience. It’s the real-life, operational stuff that would be done in a real situation,” said Craig Lingard, head of the Kativik Regional Government’s civil security department.
“Communications is always an issue between different agencies [when you’re dealing with] a command of control,” Lingard said. “Everyone has their own perceived expectations and operational abilities. Being able to use each other’s knowledge, respecting their own operational abilities, is integral.”
Lingard said for Nunavik and Kuujjuaq-based search and rescue technicians, his department has invested a lot in bringing boat operators up to Transport Canada standards.
Some were involved in last week’s simulated exercise. From their positions on board rescue vessels, operators had to communicate with the Hercules.
“To talk to a plane that’s flying above you can be intimidating, but they did just fine,” Lingard said. “There’s some trial and error, but it’s an invaluable learning experience.”
The northern search-and-rescue roundtable came at a good time, Lingard said, as boating season opens for many Nunavik communities. It’s also a time when hunters from southern Nunavik communities are travelling north to harvest beluga.
Lingard said technology has helped fill many gaps in search and rescue — for those hunters and travellers who use GPS devices out on the land.
The northern village of Kuujjuaq has recently brought in new generation GPS units, called inReach: two-way satellite communications systems which allow travellers to send text messages with their location.