Underwater recovery volunteer team stretched to limit amid funding shortage

As Alberta remains one of two provinces in Canada without an RCMP underwater recovery team, a group of civilian volunteers fear that they will not be able to continue their work in that province due to financial obstacles.

« I fear for the future and I fear for the safety of Albertans, » Luke Jevne, chairman of the underwater search team, said in an interview.

The registered nonprofit has worked with the Alberta RCMP since 2013 to help recover drowning victims and wreckage. The work has enabled grieving families to reunite with their deceased loved ones.

The conversation around diving and rescue capabilities came to the fore in mid-August after an Edmonton teenager died after falling into a pond at the Rotary Park outdoor water park in Whitecourt, Alta.

Members of the underwater search team recovered the body of 14-year-old Hassan Mohamed.

« It can be emotional when you’re dealing with children or family is involved, » Jevne said.

Luke Jevne is chair of the Underwater Search Team, a volunteer group that has been conducting search and recovery dives across Alberta since 2013. (Mrinali Anchan/CBC)

The team have made nine recoveries so far this year. In the summer of 2021, he responded 19 times.

Currently, the group is getting by, operating each year with donations of $5,000 to $10,000. But the expenses add up. A new engine for the team’s rescue truck will cost $35,000, Jevne said.

To continue operating sustainably, the team would need at least $800,000 in annual funding, he said.

This would allow the team to hire at least four full-time paid members who could respond immediately to calls for their services.

« We obviously have a passion to be there for all Albertans, but it’s too exhausting to use our own personal resources, » Jevne said.

He said the group has begged the province to provide funding. And while he remains hopeful, he said the band wouldn’t be able to continue their work without more money.

Alberta averages 30 fatal drownings each year and about 160 nonfatal emergency room visits, according to the Lifesaving Society, Alberta and Northwest Territories Branch.

For the underwater search team, an average recovery takes a day. But it’s not uncommon for the team to dedicate days of unpaid volunteer time to setting up a dive.

Jevne, a carpenter by trade, said it was not financially viable to continue volunteering while covering equipment expenses.

Alberta Municipal Affairs spokesman Scott Johnston said funds are available for volunteer dive groups that meet specific criteria.

He mentioned the Ground Search and Rescue Training Grant program, which provides funding to ground search and rescue and technical rescue groups serving Albertans.

“Eligible costs under this grant program include certain training and courses related to boating and swiftwater rescue,” Johnston said in a statement.

“Eligible groups, including those undertaking water-related search and rescue activities, should review the criteria to determine how they align with the type of training they require. To be eligible for funding, groups must be members of the Alberta Search and Rescue Association. »

Jevne said the underwater search team is having conversations with Search and Rescue Alberta about joining the association.

The Dangers of Healing

To join the Underwater Research Team, divers must be certified by the Professional Association of Diving Instructors and then complete additional in-house training.

Due to the dangers associated with the job, Jevne said the team has been unable to arrange insurance for divers while in the water.

“We have insurance when we are on site for liability. Unfortunately, because it is so dangerous, no insurance company will touch a public safety diver for life or disability. [insurance], » he said.

« We can’t see anything, everything is done by touch. We don’t know what’s under the water. So we have to take all possible precautions. »

Once a body is recovered, it is bagged and carefully brought to the surface. Divers must then sanitize themselves and their equipment due to the dangers of being in water contaminated with a decomposing body.

Two men in scuba gear pull a long white bag full of water out of a lake. Evil is handed over to a man in a green t-shirt and cargo pants.
In this simulated training session, divers demonstrate how a body is retrieved, bagged and brought to the surface. (Jamie McCannel/CBC)

Due to the stress of the job and the specialized nature of the work, Jevne said the team struggled to attract and retain volunteers.

The RCMP has underwater recovery teams in all provinces except Alberta and Prince Edward Island.

Everything is done by touch. We don’t know what’s under the water.-Luke Jevne

“The qualifications and training required to join the underwater recovery team are quite extensive and expensive,” RCMP spokesperson Robin Percival told CBC in a statement.

« In Alberta, they have found contracting out their underwater recovery services to commercial or civilian divers to be the most sustainable option for their division. »

For other territories and provinces such as the Northwest Territories, Yukon, Nunavut and Prince Edward Island, underwater recovery services are provided by the province closest to the origin of the the call.

In her search for support, Jevne reached out to local politicians, including Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin MP Rick Wilson.

In an interview, Wilson said he’s been working with the dive team to put together a fundraising program for what it will need to operate and remain sustainable.


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