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Water watchers: Amber Sheasgreen and the volunteers of Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue

Amber Sheasgreen is one of the volunteers of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue - Station 64 who risks her life to help others in need. - Shaun Thomas photo
Amber Sheasgreen is one of the volunteers of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue - Station 64 who risks her life to help others in need.
— image credit: Shaun Thomas photo

When the wind howls and whitecaps roll, they brace for a phone call.

And when that phone rings, day or night, good weather or bad, Amber Sheasgreen and the volunteers of Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Station 64 drop everything to do what they can to protect the people on the waters of the North Coast.

Sheasgreen became involved in marine search and rescue as a way of giving back to the region she loves. Growing up on Digby Island's  Crippen Cove, she is no stranger to the waters around Prince Rupert and believes the emergency volunteer crew is an invaluable service.

"We're open 24 hours per day, seven days per week right beside our phone. If you are on an on-call day and get called, you need to be ready to leave at the drop of a hat. Most of us try to make ourselves available and commit to at least two days per week so we know those are the days we're on call ... sometimes you don't know if you're going for a broken-down tow or if you're going to save somebody's life," Amber said.

"You get a phone call, you answer it and one of our station leaders lets us know, 'this is so far what we've been told, this is who is available, meet you at the boat in no more than 15 minutes'. We're geared up and ready to go as soon as we get to the dock and will generally have a briefing on the boat as we're pulling away."

Last year, Prince Rupert volunteers responded to 20 incidents requiring 61 hours of search and rescue that assisted 26 people and saved more than $2.2 million in property, with some of the exploits of Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue Station 64 being outlined on the group's Facebook page. Although rewarding, Sheasgreen said the work is certainly not without challenges.

"You have to be able to be in that mindset. You need to think about the individual and the victim, but you also need to be able to be thinking about yourself. Crew safety always comes first. We are putting our lives on the line sometimes," she explained.

"We're a small community. Sometimes we know the people that are involved in these missions and these scenarios, so it can be stressful and it can be tough. But if you are able to save somebody's life, save somebody's asset, help somebody out, it is really rewarding to know that you were able to do that."

Not every call the volunteers respond to has a happy ending. Sheasgreen said the volunteers of marine search and rescue have experienced both the highs and the lows of being on the water.

"Last year we won an award at the AGM of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue for one of the top missions of the year. This unit went out, we were dispatched to a scenario where someone needs help but it is not urgent, and it turned out to be a mayday. It was atrocious weather. A woman had fallen between two vessels and crushed her ribs. She had a collapsed lung and needed to be medivaced out,"  she recalled as an example of a call that went well, while searchers experienced the tragic side just last fall.

"During the November long weekend there were some people ...  missing on the Skeena. I was on the vessel that day and we did recover one of the victim's [bodies], unfortunately."

Aside from being willing to put the needs of others before your own when the phone call comes in, the volunteers of the Marine Search and Rescue undergo extensive training on everything from radio operations to towing procedures to first aid to how to properly handle a man-overboard situation.

"If you're selected to become crew on the vessel, there is a rigorous training program to go through. It's a total of about nine months, all inclusive, where you need to get search and rescue certification ... we usually have one training class per week for a two-hour period, plus one training night on the water for any new crew that are being trained," said Amber.

"The minimum requirement for search and rescue is 20 hours per year, our expectations are closer to 60 hours-plus."

Covering 3,250 square-kilometres of coast is no easy task and the group will be undertaking a recruiting drive in the coming months for new members.

People who aren't inclined to be on the water can help behind the scenes through fundraising and administrative support for the 100 per cent volunteer non-profit organization.

"We're looking for people that are going to be in the community for at least the next two to three years, minimum, who have the ability to be on-call," said Sheasgreen, who noted being on the water and the extensive training are just some of the things that keeps her coming back.

"There are a lot of opportunities to move forward and excel with marine search and rescue."

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