THIRD IN A SERIES: As news surrounding Surrey’s RCMP dominates headlines, we look at different ways residents are helping make our city safer. Click here to read part one, and click here to read part two.
SURREY — Headlamps on, members of Surrey Search and Rescue began looking for four people on a rainy Thursday evening, but questions lingered.
“We’re not sure who two of them are, but the other two are construction workers, and they’re missing,” Mike Surbey explained as about two dozen searchers walked through a darkened, puddle-filled parking lot in Newton.
Surbey, a three-year member of the group, also known as Surrey SAR, zipped up his jacket and assessed the scene.
“If this were a real situation,” he noted, “we’d all have waterproof pants and jackets, like this one, and helmets, eye protection and day packs.
“But we’re role-playing here,” Surbey continued, “and we’re doing scenario-based first aid. The training officer devised some scenarios our members have to deal with.”
For a couple of hours, the team of volunteers soaked up the valuable training, which involved CPR, bandages and a stretcher or two – a solid night’s work for a non-profit community service that’s been active since 1973.
One of 80 such teams in B.C., Surrey SAR covers Surrey and also White Rock, Delta and Richmond. When called upon by police, team members will search for missing people on the ground and inland waterways of the region.
“We did about 45 to 50 calls last year,” Surbey estimated, “and that includes some of the mutual-aid calls we get from other areas – the North Shore, Maple Ridge, Chilliwack, places like that.”
Larry Kost is among the team’s 50 members, all volunteers.
“But that doesn’t mean you have 50 people showing up for a task,” he cautioned. “You have people on leaves of absence, people out of town for work, or maybe they’re not qualified for a certain type of search.”
The team’s “bread and butter,” Kost said, are “dementia patients, despondents, suicidals, runaways and children” – people missed by loved ones.
“It’s against the law for us to be sent into an environment where the subject has a record, a criminal – someone who may pose a risk,” Surbey said. “That’s not our job, and we had a case like that last year where our search manager told us to stand down, it’s over. The subject had some priors and some court dates pending.”
Those are the kind of people desperate not to be found, said Layla Jiuca, a fellow SAR team member. “We’re looking for people who want to be found, or those that people want found – vulnerable people,” she said.
Kost remembers the Tuesday night in September 2014 when the team was called to search for Surrey teen Serena Vermeersch. She hadn’t come home and was reported missing by her mother. Sadly, her body was found near railroad tracks in the 14600-block of 66th Avenue. Just last week, Raymond Lee Caissie was ordered by a B.C. Provincial Court judge to stand trial for the murder.
“That was one of those really awful nights where your job becomes very real, very fast,” Kost said. “I was out there, and one of the guys here tonight is the one who actually spotted her.… A lot of nights don’t end up like that, because we don’t always find out exactly what happened. We’ll get a message of, ‘Team, stand down, the subject has been located,’ and that’s all you get told.”
Kost is three years in as a member of Surrey SAR, and he’s on the board.
“For me, personally, it was the right time in life to get involved – the kids are grown, grandkids are coming, I’m retired, I stay fit, I’m very outdoorsy, and this is something I planned on doing when I was young – but you know what that feels like when you’re raising a family, right? Dream on.
“This is all very rewarding, and that’s why we all get trained to do this work,” he added.
“There are many members of this team who offer a little piece to the big puzzle, and not everyone here is ready to go into the mountains and do that type of search, but we have a lot of people who are really keen to pound the streets of Surrey.”
The Surrey SAR team includes retirees, insurance salespeople, security guards, students, nurses – people from all walks of life.
Surbey, an Abbotsford resident who works for Kruger, the paper-products company in New West, got involved three years ago, and he initially wondered what he’d gotten himself into.
“One of my first searches was at Green Timbers Park looking for a subject, and we did a grid search – two arm lengths from each other and march, right through the holly bushes, the blackberries, everything,” Surbey recalled. “So, lots of scratches, got stung by a wasp, and of course it was a rainy day. I was like, ‘Oh, people do this? This is all as a volunteer?’ And I was just gassed at the end of the day, and we never found the person – he was found in Vancouver at Stanley Park, but we spent the whole day at Green Timbers because his house was around the corner, right, and he spent all his time there.”
Later that evening, Surbey said he was having second thoughts about doing search and rescue.
“But then the next few times out, we found somebody and the feeling was overwhelming, so good,” he said. “So there are good searches and bad searches, I just started out with a really bad one.”
The group’s primary mission is to aid in locating and rescuing missing and/or injured people, and it works with police, BC Ambulance, coroner’s office and fire departments.
Police will call on Surrey SAR when the time is right.
“The RCMP recognize their limitations and they don’t necessarily have the resources to do ground searches, nor the skills to do so,” said Jiuca, who works for the BC Liquor Distribution Branch in corporate loss-prevention and emergency management.
“Information is gathered by the RCMP from those who know the subject, and the information is then given to our search manager – things like the subject was last seen wearing these clothes, in that area, a description. Then the search manager will take that information and task out people appropriately.”
New members are always sought for Surrey SAR, and recruitment happens once a year starting in the fall. For details, visit Surreysearchandrescue.com/recruitment.php.
On Jan. 27, the provincial government announced $10 million in “one-time” funding to help bolster training, admin support and equipment renewals among B.C. Search and Rescue Association member groups.
The Surrey-based organization runs on a budget of around $90,000 per year, and it is always looking for new funds.
As head of fundraising, Surbey credits recent donations by London Drugs (eight computers) and MediQuest Technologies (an AED, or Automated External Defibrillator) as very helpful.
“Our yard was broken into just before Christmas, and with the resulting media attention, the public was very generous with $17,000 in cash and in-kind equipment donations,” he noted.
“We don’t have a cover for some of the vehicles over there,” he said, pointing across 142nd Street, “so shelter for that is one thing we could use. And we have a cargo trailer that’s aging big-time – these are wish-list items. Part of our job is making sure the public knows about us and what we do, so we’re always searching for ways to raise our profile.”
Project Lifesaver helps Surrey team find people who tend to wander
Project Lifesaver is one tool used by Surrey Search and Rescue to locate people who tend to wander.
The Surrey-based program involves a wristwatch-like device that, when activated, sends a signal to a radio-frequency unit (pictured) operated by search crews.
“We have equipment that can receive this particular frequency, and each unit has its own,” said Sean Magnusson, a Project Lifesaver rep and 25-year member of Surrey SAR.
The technology can help locate adults with Alzheimer’s or brain damage, for example, or a child with autism.
“We have a new client, an elderly gentleman who still likes to travel around the community on a scooter, and if he happens to go missing, his family calls the RCMP, who then call our search managers,” Magnusson explained. “There is a frequency code on a sheet of paper, which also has his name, height, his likes and dislikes, where he likes to go, and we have more information than the police have.”
Locating such people can be very manpower-intensive for both police and search teams.
“This is a tool in our toolbox, so instead of spending four or five hours looking for somebody, we can do it in an hour or less,” Magnusson added.