A new dawn for wilderness rescue in Quebec

Published:  31 July, 2014

Jean-Thomas Bilodeau-Fortin from the Quebec Emergency Management Organisation highlights how the authority restructured its wilderness rescue operations so the vast province is now covered for response to the most remote areas.

In October 2009, a hunter was left stranded in the woods of Northern Quebec after suffering a serious injury. As no rescuers were willing or able to reach the individual and as his health deteriorated, his family paid for a small helicopter to go and proceed with the evacuation. Paralysed following the incident, the victim filed a complaint with the Québec Ombudsman, claiming the government had failed to provide him with basic services and that a timely professional medical evacuation could have prevented many of his injuries.

The Québec Ombudsman accepted the complaint and published a report in March 2013 on wilderness rescue. Among other things, the report mentions the absence of a co-ordinating agency for all types of technical rescue, an unwillingness from many firefighters and paramedics to provide wilderness rescue services to the population, an absence of emergency protocols that slowed down response time for rescuers, and a lack of public awareness regarding the dangers of off-road activities.

The Quebec Emergency Management Organisation (EMO), part of the Ministry of Public Safety, was viewed by the Quebec Ombudsman as the organisation best placed to act as co-ordinating agency, and was given three years to implement standards, protocols and incentives to ensure that every region of the province is covered in terms of wilderness rescue.

As it stands now, wilderness rescue services are very disparate across the province. Depending on where he finds himself in trouble, a distressed individual could be assisted by firefighters, search and rescue volunteers or police officers. These rescuers may or may not be assisted by paramedics and there are no standards or guidelines regarding the training and equipment that are provided to them.

In his report the Ombudsman mandated that paramedics should always be on-site to provide medical assistance to the victim and ensure the evacuation will not cause additional injuries. While they can take care of the victim, paramedics neither have the training nor the equipment to safely operate by themselves in the harsh conditions associated with wilderness rescue. That is where firefighters and/or search and rescue volunteers will come in. They will escort the paramedics to the victim and bring everyone back to the ambulance.

To enact guidelines, standards and protocols regarding these interventions, Quebec EMO is developing a Frame of reference that will be made public in the coming weeks. The document details the procedures to follow from the moment a distress call is made to when the victim is safely transported to the hospital. Guidelines include the minimum number of rescuers, the competencies they need to have as well as the kind of protective and medical equipment.

The time is ripe in Québec for this type of issue to be addressed. In 2000 the Fire Safety Act mandated every localities within the province to have a Fire Safety Plan that would ensure adequate response times for firefighters, but only for fire suppression. These plans grant exemption clauses to the firefighters responding to calls. (Before the new law fire departments were routinely sued for allegedly responding too slowly to 9-1-1 calls).

For now, the exemption clause only applies to fire suppression, but Quebec firefighters are no different from their colleagues around the world: they do much more than just putting out fires. As they are increasingly involved in technical rescue, many Fire Departments have asked to be granted the same exemption clauses for a wider variety of activity. The Ministry of Public Safety cannot grant that kind of legal protection before first enacting standards to be respected, which is what the Frame of reference will be doing for wilderness rescue.

Even if Fire Departments include wilderness rescue within their Fire Safety Plan and receive the exemption clause, these type of interventions promise to be very challenging to the rescuers. For a start, the province of Québec is huge. As was the case with the incident reported earlier, distances can quickly become very challenging as more and more tourists and users explore the wilderness of Northern Québec. Also the non-urban parts of the province are poorly deserved in terms of telecommunications network, and wilderness rescue operations will often involve the collaboration of various agencies without interoperability capabilities.

Also, the exemption clause would only apply to Fire Departments but in some regions wilderness rescue is provided by teams of Search and Rescue volunteers or Police Departments. They will also have to respect the standards enacted in the Frame of reference, which could prove especially costly for self-financed volunteer teams.

The discussions surrounding the issue have provided a much-needed discussion in many parts of the province. Many localities pride themselves on providing to their visitors a whole range of outdoor activities, including hiking, mountain biking and camping far from the beaten path. But part of the expectations tourist have when they visit an area is the assurance that timely and professional assistance will be provided to them should they need it.

The objective was to first distribute the Frame of Reference and then form regional committees that would have to write emergency plans and protocols for wilderness rescue. But in the better part of the province work is already under way at the local level. The region of Charlevoix, just East of Quebec City, is famous for its parks and mountains. Several of its local Fire Departments have teamed up to create a unified wilderness rescue team that has been so successful that local authorities have decided to expand its mandate to swift-water rescue.

Search and rescue volunteers are now leasing their services to town and counties to provide emergency services, and even private companies are entering the fray. The wilderness rescue work is only one year old, and already Quebec EMO has been asked, and has accepted, to expand the scope of the Frame of reference to the other types of technical rescue.

In parallel to this operation-orientated work, two other committees have been formed. One is finalising work on promotion material highlighting the importance for users of wild areas to stay safe, and the other is looking at ways to finance the acquisition of material and training for search and rescue teams and Fire Departments.

  • Operation Florian

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