February 8, 2019
To the crew of station Sooke and their families please understand the following is not intended to blame or shame. As a former member I understand how you must feel as I am also feeling it myself. I truly hope you are all okay.
Please note, I can only write this text drawing from my own experiences. So apologies in advance if it sounds like I am making this about me or my personal grievances. It is not. After I left RCMSAR, I was advised by friends and family to forget what I’d seen and move on with my life. It’s difficult to criticize a charitable organization without coming off as disrespectful to the volunteers who put their lives on the line. I am writing this today because I am upset on their behalf, having been one of them, and having a spouse who still actively volunteers with search & rescue (with a different organization). This is about them and those who choose to volunteer in the future.
I have a hard time forgiving myself for keeping quiet about this just to take my own self out of the cross hairs. For almost a year I have remained silent, hoping that my fears about this organization wouldn’t come true. But after the recent accident involving the Royal Canadian Marine Search & Rescue crew that resulted in injuries, I feel that I need to come forward with my experience and thoughts on this organization.
For a little under three years, I was a member of the Sooke station. During that time, I experienced and witnessed some of the most disturbing things I have ever seen in a volunteer organization.
It was only shortly after joining the organization in the summer of 2015 that I felt that something was amiss. One of the first things I noticed was that the safety equipment was thrown on a pile and shoved into lockers, rotting/moulding and in a state of disrepair. Understanding that this equipment was there to protect and potentially save our lives, I took it upon myself to spend the next three full days organizing, cleaning, and documenting any issues.
I also noticed a number of other issues - crews would be heading out for calls and training with inadequate or missing gear; the rescue vessels were not properly serviced, cleaned, labeled or equipped for service.
After about nine months or so, I was made “Equipment Officer” for the station. One of my tasks was to document, review and purchase the proper equipment recommended by head office. One of these issues was that the batteries being used for the rescue strobes that had been recently purchased were not the correct ones. After contacting the company directly, it was confirmed this was the case.
I approached the station leadership and requested a budget for the proper batteries. Out of my own pocket I purchased enough to allow the active crews on duty to have the correct batteries and removed the incorrect batteries. Not only was I denied the budget, but also reprimanded for making the decision to remove the incorrect batteries on the other units until the correct ones could be used.
It was also during this time I was in the process of creating a large whiteboard that would provide crew with up-to-date vessel maintenance and safety information as they walked in the door. Hours before installing the board, I was told that it had to be moved to a different location because leadership didn’t want the public to come in and see that we had potential issues with our equipment and vessels. I disagreed and stated that crew getting the information was more important than public perception. This ultimately led to me being removed from the “equipment officer” position.
There were many small examples like this. After visiting military and other SAR organizations myself and other members would often suggest and offer to take steps to create clearer, safer, easier-to-understand processes, for example by labeling or color-coding equipment. These were almost always either dismissed or outright rejected by leadership. For example, other members suggested labeling the fuel caps of both boats (one of which used gasoline and the other diesel) - this was rejected for fear of “looking like we don’t know what we’re doing”. It was also suggested to color-code parts of the de-watering pump, making it easier for members to put it together correctly during adverse conditions, such as in bad weather, in the dark, on a moving deck - this was rejected because “it might make crew complacent if it’s too easy”. As a third example, I offered to overhaul the maintenance checklists (using my experience as a graphic designer), but it never ceased to be a point of contention because “the ones we have now work fine” or “you’ll just end up upsetting that member who created the last one”.
Other members with extensive experience in SAR, military and EMS were also voicing their concerns over the type of equipment being purchased, lack of vessel maintenance, as well as the lack of standard operating procedures and consistent training, but were repeatedly and oftentimes aggressively challenged and dismissed.
As I became more involved with the organization on multiple levels, I became aware of just how lacking the training standards and expectations are. RCMSAR crews are supposed to follow standard procedures when training and on callouts but these were often not followed. Helmets and proper safety gear were not consistently enforced. Procedures to keep crews, the vessel and the people in need safe were often disregarded in favor of a Coxswain’s personal whims and showboating and unnecessary risks were often taken by leadership with the intention of impressing guests or new crew.
Most actual injuries I witnessed were fairly benign (such as a crew slamming fingers in a hatch that had not been properly maintained to stay latched open in rough seas or crew hitting their head on something), but there was also some close calls. Because I was one of the most active and involved members, I witnessed most of them myself.
One example was during a night training when we found ourselves in rough seas - 10’ short and confused swell. Standard operating procedure (and common sense) dictated that the Coxswain inform the crews to put on the safety harnesses and helmets while the weather was still calm enough that crews had a hand free for that. This was not done, and when the vessel was hit hard by a sideways wave, I watched a crewmember be flung from their seat and slammed from a height of five feet onto the deck of the vessel, narrowly missing a metal platform with her head. This could have resulted in a major injury if not death. She was unbelievably lucky to get away with bruises. RCMSAR-wide operating procedures were changed afterwards so it is no longer at the Coxswain’s discretion when to put seatbelts and helmets on.
Another time, the jet boat’s engine compartment was filling with water and we almost didn’t notice it in time - the vessel was in actual danger of sinking. We managed to keep up with ingress using the de-watering pump and luckily we were close to home, but adequate maintenance and safety checks would have prevented the situation.
I also became aware through casual conversation that Sooke station has had a history of similar instances resulting in damaged vessels and injured crew. They are very “hush hush” at the station, but stories and photos eventually surfaced showing that this recent accident is not the first preventable accident to have happened. These happened before my time as a member so I only know this through stories, but the possibility for serious and unnecessary injury was always looming.
Over time it turned out that there are a number of “disgruntled ex-members” in Sooke who had left the organization due to similar issues on a professional and personal level.
Despite incidences like these, there was a somewhat laissez-faire attitude towards regular training. Leadership would often reduce training time or limit it out of fear of what they called “volunteer burnout”. The station was divided into crew who were quite happy to only show up occasionally, and those frustrated when weekly training got canceled again. The station always had a high member turnover, and leadership took turns saying “it doesn’t matter if x leaves, new people will always sign themselves up” and panicking about the lack of fully trained crew, resulting in recruitment of new members whether they were ready or able to make the time commitments (training every Wednesday night and some weekends, station meeting once a month, 3 on-call shifts a week) or not. One crew member was told right when she joined “we are low on members right now, so don’t worry if you can’t do three shifts a week, we need new crew no matter what.”
Substance abuse was also a big issue and had been for some time. I first noticed it early in my SAR career, but I didn’t understand how prevalent or dangerous it was until I attended my first SAREx put on by RCMSAR. Drinking and getting drunk was common place amongst many crew. There are of course rules against this, but at all the SAREx’s I attended there were certain members - many of them Coxswains - that would drink well into the night only to step onto the vessel early in the morning for more training.
At Sooke station, drinking by some of the members was considered normal and even encouraged. I was harassed for years for not socially drinking beer with the other crew (instead having a glass of coke or a hot chocolate). It was always under the guise of jokes, but it was obvious that to not drink meant that they didn’t consider you “one of them”. At one point in time, station leadership bought another crew member a glass of wine even when she stated that she was on call that night (“There’s not gonna be a callout tonight. Don’t worry. Just have a glass of wine.”). I know this because she asked me to cover her shift for her that night. Even station leadership would often get intoxicated and engage in activities that were not only illegal - such as yelling jokes into a marine hand-held radio from shore during an emergency call - but a potential safety risk. The worst thing about this is that this and similar stories were turned into a funny anecdote later and they would continue to brag about it within the group.
One member had been reported by different crew members no less than five times to the station leadership and RCMSAR human resources for being intoxicated on duty (and on at least one call-out), but to my knowledge, nothing was ever done about it. In fact, this member was eventually promoted to Coxswain and when I refused to go onto the boat with the person as duty Coxswain, I was told that it had been handled and if I continued to mention any safety concerns to anyone it would be misconstrued as harassment.
In all fairness, when I left RCMSAR they were in the process of creating training courses for their members that loosely mirrored the very professional Canadian Coast Guard training. RCMSAR Head Office employed me to create a training manual for one of these courses, but with only two weeks before the first course was to take place, and very little material existing it was a project that would never be properly developed in time. When I said that it was impossible to create a training manual in this timeframe, I was told to “just copy & paste stuff from the Coast Guard manual.”
Unfortunately, like so many things in the organization the mismanagement and questionable decisions such as these often results in haphazard and inconsistent training amongst stations and crew.
These are just some examples that I was involved in or witnessed. In most of them, crew were lucky to get away with minor injuries, and so circumstances leading to the event could easily be dismissed. RCMSAR stations are partially funded through the coast guard, but do rely heavily on funding from outside sources from gaming grants to private donations. As such, the organization is understandably very concerned with public appearance. An unfortunate side-effect of this is that when there were conflicts between public perception on one side and transparency and accountability on the other, in many instances the former took priority.
You may be reading this and asking yourself why I would be mentioning this at a time like this. I will be honest and tell you that I was ejected from the organization for the reason of “insubordination” so it could be easily concluded that my motivation is that of revenge. It is no secret that I am very, very disappointed by RCMSAR on not only a professional level, but also a personal one.
I was more passionate about this organization than anything else I have ever done in my life. I wanted so badly to see myself and the station succeed that in my almost three years I had accumulated over 350 hours of sea time, 45 missions, 91 mission hours, 500+ training hours, had the highest attendance record at the station, accumulated 7275 volunteer hours in 2017 alone, and reached the level of Coxswain (in training).
I am not airing all this dirty laundry because I am mad for being ejected. I am saying all this because I am upset that for three years myself and others pushed and pushed for consistent training standards, proper equipment, better safety procedures, more transparency and accountability, and steps to reduce bullying and harassment of members, yet were pushed out and ignored.
I stayed silent for a year trying to figure out the best way to voice my concerns and experiences, hoping that it wouldn’t come to anybody getting injured or killed. This morning I woke up to an image of the Spirit of Sooke rescue vessel upside down on the rocks and reports of crew in critical condition, air-lifted to hospital. This makes me absolutely furious.
People like me join this organization and are told we will be kept safe. We are told that the people put in charge are responsible, mature people that will do everything in their power to assure that we are protected on and off the water so we all come home alive. My experience with this organization was in many ways the opposite of that and the accident the other night is a frustrating and devastating reminder of what will likely continue to happen if the public and the organizations that fund volunteer search & rescue don’t hold RCMSAR accountable for their actions and/or lack thereof.
Search & rescue is not a hobby. It’s not a weekly yoga class that you show up for when it’s convenient. It is dangerous and risky and must be respected. If a senior member tells a new crew that they’ll be safe, they believe it. Crews need to be protected emotionally and physically so this never happens again. Leadership needs to be honest with new members, senior members and themselves about what can happen when training standards drop.
The organization also needs to take a serious look at the concerns voiced by their current members. As long as people are promoted and protected by the organization who are driven by ego and power, these accidents will continue to happen. As long as members are forced out whenever they challenge or question the decisions made by leadership, the risk of injury or death will always be unnecessarily high.
It is my sincere hope that the crews involved will be okay. As well, I hope that this statement encourages people to start having a serious and open conversation about what happens behind the boathouse doors. Unless these issues are talked about and pressure is put on the organization to protect its members over its reputation, this won’t be the last accident. The next one might be worse.
It is important to note that this statement contains only a handful of examples of my personal experiences with the station. It is important to understand that these situations were a small part of ongoing and complex issues involving many members of the station over a number of years. I didn’t feel it was appropriate to provide every detail or to name any names, but only to provide an overview.
If you have any questions or concerns please contact me using the email link below.
- Jeff W
- I want to thank everyone for their support and kind words. While many of my posts on social media are mysteriously getting deleted, many of you are sharing, discussing and reaching out to me with words of support and encouragement. I hope that this will not be "brushed under the rug" and forgotten about. The stories and experiences I've been told privately by many of you has further convinced me that important change needs to happen. Thank you.
- Some have pointed out the huge number of hours for 2017 perhaps being an error. This number is the total accumulation of time for training, maintenance, fundraising, projects, and on-call shifts. For the better part of the year I was doing 24 hour shifts which is the reason for the high number.