Funds take flight for helicopter rescue

Vernon Search and Rescue lands $20,000 to train and equip personnel in helicopter winch rescue

Rescue techniques in the North Okanagan could be reaching new heights.

The Regional District of North Okanagan will provide $20,000 to Vernon Search and Rescue to train and equip six people in helicopter winch rescue for isolated and rugged terrain.

“This is some of the best bang for our buck,” said director Eugene Foisy of the funding.

“It’s a great organization and it’s great what they do.”

The unit consists of 65 volunteers and they average 40 to 45 calls a year. Besides rescuing people lost in the backcountry, members also help during disasters like wildfires and floods and do evidence searches for the RCMP.

“With the value they bring to all of us, this is good use of money,” said Juliette Cunningham, a regional district director.

The total cost to establish the helicopter winch rescue program is $60,000 and the unit will pursue the remainder of the money through fundraising.

Once established, operational activities are covered by the provincial government.

Presently, the closest helicopter winch teams are in Fort St. John, Penticton, Chilliwack, Revelstoke and Nelson and that reduces the response time when someone is trapped in difficult terrain in the North Okanagan.

“We’d be providing a capability that doesn’t exist in terms of speed and safety,” said Don Blakely, with Vernon Search and Rescue.

In a recent case, it took unit members about 8.5 hours to access a site near Cherryville and assist someone who was in danger. With a helicopter, that time frame could have been reduced to about 1.5 hours.

From a search site, an injured person could be taken to a waiting ambulance or directly to hospital.

“With a helicopter, we don’t have to move them over a cliff or by snowmobile,” said Blakely of reduced aggravation of injuries.

“There would be a substantial increase in safety for our volunteers and the subject.”

Ambulance personnel could also be moved into an isolated area by the helicopter winch team.

Blakely is convinced a helicopter rescue team will benefit the North Okanagan’s economy.

“We’re attracting people to this area to play,” he said of hiking, snowmobiling, skiing and other pursuits.

“This equipment will be a critical part of our safety net.”

If the program proceeds, a Kelowna-based helicopter would be used and it would pick up Search and Rescue team members at the Vernon Airport.