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Helicopter rescues restored across B.C.
The equipment certification problem that grounded all long-line helicopter rescue operations province-wide this week has been resolved, according to Emergency Management B.C. and the federal government.
The provincial emergency management office, as of Oct. 26, had grounded all long-line helicopter rescues in B.C. after a North Shore Rescue volunteer reported that Emergco, the North Vancouver-based manufacturer of the long-line kits, had its safety certification pulled by Transport Canada in 2007.
The problem concerned HETS, the helicopter external transportation system, a rope-rescue tool pioneered by Emergco and North Shore Rescue, and used by approximately 10 search-and-rescue teams across the province.
The system allows a helicopter pilot to lower rescue personnel onto otherwise hard-to-reach or unstable sites, such as atop cliff faces or in avalanche terrain, and to extract victims from danger far more quickly than a ground-based search and extraction.
The HETS cancellation affected not only SAR teams, but ski patrols, the RCMP and commercial resource industries.
"We're just waiting for some documentation from all the HETS groups in the province and the supplier saying that their equipment is Transport Canada certified and then we're back in business," said Emergency Management B.C.'s SAR specialist Ian Cunnings in an interview with The Outlook Tuesday. "I'm hoping we're going to have it before the weekend but we'll see how long the process is."
The remedy apparently devised by Emergco and Transport Canada is that B.C.'s HETS teams will be able to bring their rope systems to any of a number of authorized maintenance organizations locally for Transport Canada certification. Once approved, the long-line systems will be air-worthy once more.
"In the meantime," Cunnings said, "B.C.’s search and rescue teams still have other rescue tools in the event they need them. They also have the ability to enlist the military or Parks Canada to help carry out these kinds of rescues."
North Shore Rescue has already used the life-saving long-line extraction kits approximately a dozen times in 2012 and trains extensively on the $35,0000 systems.
"The equipment is first rate," said North Shore Rescue leader Tim Jones as the matter was being resolved in Ottawa on Tuesday. "Did the manufacturer make some mistakes? Yes, he did. But the bottom line is this is such an important rescue tool in the province that people would have died."
From Jones's initial warning about the certification issue last weekend, it was Conservative MP for North Vancouver, Andrew Saxton, who took the issue up the ladder.
"I immediately contacted the Prime Minister's Office," Saxton told The Outlook Tuesday from Ottawa, "and the Minister [of Transport Canada, Denis Lebel] was subsequently contacted. And we were able to work very fast to get a solution in place thanks to the work of a lot of people."
North Shore Rescue has invested more than $300,000 to buy and train its volunteer personnel on three HETS kits. Without them, Jones said, it would be hard to get rescuers to respond to even routine calls.
"What would typically be a quick long-line rescue now turns into a Tuesday night operation," Jones said. "People cannot leave work and spend a whole weekday night on a mountain doing a rescue of a skier or snowboarder."