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Last Updated: 05 June, 2016
PART ONE: BACKGROUND
This article provides an overview of the recruitment, selection and training process for the Canadian Search and Rescue Technician (SAR Tech) Qualification Level 5A (QL5A) course, otherwise known as the Basic SAR Tech Course.
These SAR Techs, who receive similar training to the US Air Force’s Pararescue, form the Search and Rescue element of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF). SAR Techs “…are part of an elite group of primary care paramedics that provide on-scene medical aid and evacuation all over Canada. They are the rescuers of last resort; getting called out in some of the worst weather, to some of the most remote parts of Canada.” (Abercrombie, 2014), and work closely with other SAR organisations, including:
- The Canadian Coast Guard (CCG);
- The Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary;
- The Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA); and
- Various volunteer ground SAR organisations across Canada.
They are not part of the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command (CANSOFCOM or CSOFC) Special Operations Forces (SOF) community, a “fourth service” (Horn, 2012, p.48) of the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF).
In 2012, there were approximately 160 SAR Techs across eight Royal Canadian Air Force squadrons (Pennell, 2012), down to approximately 130 in 2014 (Abercrombie, 2014) and 140 in 2015 (RCAF, 2015) responding to approximately 1000 SAR tasking’s annually (RCAF, 2015). They can trace their roots back to World War II, when pararescue “…was initiated in 1942 by former World War I flying ace and renowned bush pilot Wilfred Reid ‘Wop’ May OBE, DFC, who is considered the grandfather of Canadian Para Rescue.” (Para Rescue Association of Canada, 2010). However, in April 2016 there were suggestions that search and rescue could be privatised (Berthiaume, 2016).
Squadrons where SAR Techs can be found include:
- No.103 Search and Rescue Squadron based at 9 Wing, Gander in Newfoundland;
- No.413 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at 14 Wing, Greenwood, N.S;
- No.424 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at 8 Wing, Trenton in Ontario;
- No.435 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at 17 Wing, Winnipeg in Manitoba;
- No.442 Transport and Rescue Squadron based at 19 Wing, Comox in British Columbia; and
- Three Combat Support Squadrons.
They must be extremely fit and their ability to complete their mission is directly related to their physical condition. Consequently, a SAR Tech must be conditioned to cope with the stresses imposed by sustained operations and be physically ready to be subjected to the impact forces associated with their penetration methods. SAR Tech normal activities include:
- Helicopter hoisting;
- Mountaineering; and
- Ground operations.
SAR Techs require good skills because, during operations, they will not be able to select their drop zone (DZ) – the accident/rescue site does. They are also trained to land in confined and enclosed spaces (i.e. wooded areas) and therefore must possess great canopy skills to safely land with their loads in order to execute their rescue mission. A SAR Techs parachute training now includes wind tunnel training. SAR Techs typically work in teams of two.
It is important to understand that a SAR Tech must:
- Be fit enough to get to the problem (i.e. search) in a safe and effective manner;
- Have enough physical reserve to be able to deal with the problem (i.e. rescue) once they get to it.
The Basic SAR Tech course includes many combinations of physical challenges such as:
- Long periods of work under load (hiking or back-country skiing);
- Shorter periods of heavy lifting and carrying; and/or
- Swimming or diving with equipment.
It must be emphasised that a candidate must be physically fit at the beginning of the SAR Tech training process if they are to stand any chance of success. The training requires far greater expenditure of physical energy than is normally required in other peace time training. It is essential that candidates arrive fully fit, carrying no injuries and with a desire to pursue an outdoorsman lifestyle.
The aim of this article is to describe the fundamental entry requirements, selection process and training for personnel seeking to become a member of the Search and Rescue Technician community.
1.2 Women and the SAR Tech Role
In accordance with current Government policy on the employment of women in the Canadian Armed Forces, military service as a SAR Tech is open to male and female volunteers.
In 1998, Tammy Negraeff became the first woman to graduate as a SAR Tech, retiring after 25 years in 2015 (Lookout, 2015).
1.3 General Duties of a SAR Tech
- Penetrating wilderness areas by parachute, rappelling, climbing, back-packing and using all-terrain vehicles;
- Performing water rescues wearing compressed air breathing apparatus (CABA);
- Providing life-saving and sustaining medical care;
- Conducting parachute operations day or night over water and all types of terrain;
- Moving casualties by improvised and standard stretcher for long distances (one end of shared loads of 90 Kg);
- Conducting hoisting/rappelling action from helicopter over sea and all types of terrain;
- Conducting diving operations using CABA;
- Dispatching SAR equipment from low flying aircraft while working around open doors or ramps;
- Conducting mountain rescue operations by climbing rock or ice formations on foot with heavy packs;
- Wearing personal survival equipment of 12 Kg while airborne, 12 hours per day;
- Loading equipment weighing up to 40 Kg onto aircraft lifting 1.5 m from ground to aircraft;
- Responding to in-flight emergencies including fire-fighting;
- Remaining highly alert for up to 20 hour per day;
- Enduring up to 8 hours of low level flying in bad weather conducting search ops;
- Enduring emotional stress of conducting triage in mass casualty situations and when handling human remains;
- Enduring immersion in cold water when rescuing victims (includes swimming to, harnessing and being hoisted to a helicopter with the victim); and/or
- Enduring high noise, vibration and heat inherent in aircraft operations.
1.4 Tier 1 or Tier 2 Status
Canadian Search and Rescue Technicians are not considered special operations forces and therefore do not have a Tier 1 or 2 classification.
Special Operations Forces (SOF) units that undertake direct action missions are typically classified as Tier 1 units. Other SOF units are referred to as ‘Tier 2’ units because, typically, they fulfil a supporting role for the Tier 1 units.
1.5 CANSOFCOM Human Performance Programmes
The CANSOFCOM Human Performance (HP) Programmes section sits within Human Performance Research and Development, an element of the Directorate of Fitness (DFIT) (itself an element of Personnel Support Programmes (PSP), a division of the Canadian Forces Morale and Welfare Services (CFMWS)).
The HP Programmes conducts a variety tasks for CANSOFCOM which include:
- HP Research;
- Development of physical fitness selection and maintenance tests/standards;
- Assessment centres;
- Supporting physical fitness training programmes;
- Other HP research as directed by the Commander CANSOFCOM.
The HP Programmes may utilise the CANSOFCOM Human Performance Research Team and the CANSOFCOM Human Performance Lab in order to realise these tasks.
PART TWO: ENTRY STANDARDS AND APPLICATIONS
Information regarding the basic requirements for enlistment or commissioning in the CAF can be found by clicking on the link, which the reader is advised to read if not already familiar.
The CAF does not accept direct entry applicants, i.e. civilians with no prior military experience, for SAR Tech training. As a result, volunteers for parachutist training may be accepted from both CAF military personnel (both officer and enlisted) from any branch of military service to attend SAR Tech training.
There was a direct entry programme established in 2006, for qualified Primary Care Paramedics, which was to run for 6 years. It is currently unknown if the programme was deemed a success or if it continued.
Consequently, there is one recognised pathway to become a Canadian Search and Rescue Technician:
- Attend and complete the Canadian Basic Search and Rescue Technician Course.
2.1 Recruiting Unit
Although the Canadian Forces School for Search and Rescue (CFSSAR) is, technically, the recruiting unit, candidates must volunteer for SAR Tech training through their chain of command.
2.2 General Requirements and Eligibility for All Candidates
Subject to the requirements outlined below, all CAF officers and enlisted (other ranks) personnel are eligible to attend the SAR Tech assessment and selection programme.
General Requirements for all candidates (Abercrombie, 2014):
- Non-commissioned members only.
- Regular and Reserve forces personnel can apply.
- Minimum of 5 years working for the CAF.
- Minimum rank of Corporal.
- Obtain approval from chain of command;
- Complete SAR Tech Physical Fitness Test (Section 3.2).
- Any Military Occupational Specialty (MOS) ID.
- Complete SAR Tech Preliminary Selection Phase (Section 3.4).
- Any branch of military service.
- Pass appropriate medical examination: V 2, CV 2, H 2, G 2, O 2 and A 4.
PART THREE: OULTINE OF SAR TECH SELECTION AND TRAINING
3.0 SAR Tech Selection and Training Phases
The journey to becoming a member of the SAR Tech community is not easy, and training is rigorous and highly selective, but the courage and strength individuals will gain as a candidate will stay with them for their entire life.
Throughout the 11 months of the Basic SAR Tech course, approximately 15 instructors will participate in all the training phases undertaken by the candidates, which includes: ground; medical; winter operations; arctic operations; dive; sea operations; parachuting operations; mountain operations; and operational/consolidation.
In addition to the training provided by the CAF, candidates are also trained by professional civilians. For example, candidates attend the Paramedic Academy of British Columbia and receive their dive training at the Fleet Diving Unit, Pacific; the CAFs centre of excellence for diving.
All candidates will undertake a number of distinct phases of training (Table 1), in which candidates are taught the fundamentals of CAF search and rescue through formal CAF schooling and on-the-job training.
|Table 1: SAR Tech training pipeline|
|1||Meet eligibility criteria||Variable|
|2||SAR Tech Physical Fitness Test||1 day|
|3||SAR Tech Prelimininary Selection Phase||2-3 weeks|
|4||Basic Search and Rescue Technician Qualification Level 5A Course||11 months|
|Source: Abercrombie, 2014|
3.1 Training Hierarchy
Candidates undergo training delivered by the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue (CFSSAR) located at 19 Wing, Comox in British Columbia. However, candidates will visit a variety of locations as part of their training.
The CFSSAR moved to Comox in 1996 and its training complex opened in 1998 (RCAF, 2013). The CFSSAR is led by the Commandant, a Chief Warrant Officer (OR-9).
3.2 SAR Tech Physical Fitness Test
All components of the SAR Tech PFT are administered by appropriately qualified Personnel Support Programmes (PSP) Fitness and Sports Instructors (Section 1.5). The results of a candidate’s SAR Tech PFT test are valid up to a maximum of 6 months.
As part of the PFT process, candidates must complete the SAR Tech reporting form, which is composed of three sections:
- Section A: Service particulars (i.e. name, age and gender).
- Section B: Health appraisal questionnaire.
- Section C: Test results, including fitness instructor and candidates signatures.
Table 2 provides an outline of the SAR Tech PFT for candidates. The scores attained from this test are used as part of the selection process.
To be considered for pre-selection for the Basic SAR Tech course candidates must meet the minimum performance standard for each of the three components of the SAR Tech PFT.
|Table 2: SAR Tech PFT|
3.3 Review Board
However, successful completion of the SAR Tech PFT does not guarantee acceptance on the SAR Tech Preliminary Selection Phase due to the competitive nature of the selection process and the number of vacancies available. For example, in 2007, out of 800 applicants 24 were selected for the selection phase with 12 jobs available (Neilson, 2007).
Once the PFT, interviews and medical examination have been completed, a file will be sent to a review board in Ottawa in order to select all the candidates for the next phase (RCAF, 2013).
As I understand it, candidates selected by the review board for the selection phase will then be required to complete aircrew and dive medicals.
3.4 SAR Tech Preliminary Selection Phase
“This is the 2 week “Hell Week”. It is the military aircrew survival course with a lot of “motivational exe[r]cises” designed to push us to our absolute limits.” (Neilson, 2007).
The SAR Tech Preliminary Selection Phase is delivered by the CFSSAR Detachment located at Jarvis Lake, Alberta. The course is two weeks in duration and is held each February (RCAF, 2013), although Day (2014) mentions a three week selection and Pugliese (2014) and Goulet (2015) both state selection takes place at Hinton and Jarvis Lake.
Candidates are tested on their physical and mental abilities in a broad range of environments such as medical, survival, orienteering and leadership. The process is looking for candidates who can think ‘outside the box’ and are self-reliant.
This assessment and selection process places candidates in a similar situation to a typical SAR mission. They will be woken up in the middle of the night, get sent out not knowing where they are going, in winter, in Northern Alberta. The purpose is to test the candidates’ ability to work through a stressful situation, make a plan and execute it.
“The SAR Techs taught us all kinds of advanced survival techniques and graded us on how well we performed them. We were also tested physically and mentally. They would get us up every night to perform all kinds of tasks from memory tests and scavenger hunts, to team problem solving and out and out physical efforts. I think once we managed to get 5 hours sleep at a stretch. They also provided all the meals (pre-packaged military meals). We figured we were getting about 3000 calories per day and were easily expending twice that. The last 3 days of the course were the “solo” phase where we marched approximately 4 km through the woods on snowshoes with a 100 pound pack using a compass to navigate. When we reached our destination we were searched for food, told to eat everything we had and then given 2 days’ worth of survival candies totalling 1000 calories. We had to make a shelter, build a signal fire and do a few other tasks which we were evaluated on at the end. Needless to say after the course I had lost another 20 pounds.” (Neilson, 2007).
The assessment ends with a difficult test; the candidates are sent out into the woods, still in the middle of winter, with very minimal food (Day, 2014). They have to set up a camp by themselves and just try to survive for (approximately four) days – hunting or gathering food, and trying to stay warm. One of the tasks a candidate may have to undertake is the building of a ground-to-air signal fire in the event they see an airplane; the smoke has to reach tree-top level in a minute or less or the candidate fails.
Of the (approximate) 30 candidates who start the selection phase, between 10 and 15 will continue on to the Basic SAR Tech course (Abercrombie, 2014). This may be because a candidate voluntarily withdraws (VW), is deemed unsuitable or higher scoring candidates are selected due to the low number of vacancies.
3.5 Basic SAR Tech Course
The 11 month Basic Search and Rescue Technician Qualification Level 5A Course is delivered by the CFSSAR located at 19 Wing, Comox in British Columbia. However, candidates will visit a variety of locations as part of their training. Training typically begins each July and ends the following June (19 Wing Public Affairs, 2015).
SAR operations may require a variety of skills which SAR Techs must be proficient in, including parachuting, mountaineering, swimming, hiking and diving. As well as being experts in these skills, SAR Techs also need to complete additional training as paramedics. An outline of the training a SAR Tech is likely to receive is outlined in Table 3.
|Table 3: Outline of Basic SAR Tech Course|
|Pre-Study PCP and HAI/AMT||
||12 weeks followed by 3 weeks|
|SAR Fundamentals and Operational Phase||
3.6 Graduation and Probationary Period
Upon successful completion of the Basic SAR Tech course, candidates will be awarded their “wings” and “orange berets” (19 Wing Public Affairs, 2015), joining the Canadian Search and Rescue community as a qualified Search and Rescue Technician.
Graduation is one week in duration and encompasses administrative out-processing, as well as the actual graduation parade.
Successful candidates transfer to the Military Occupational Structure (MOS) ID 00101, with the Military Occupational Code (MOC) 131, and promotion to Master Corporal.
New graduates will be posted to an operational unit where they will train and get used to various types of equipment and airframes needed for their job. This probationary phase is used to evaluate the individual’s ability to use all their learned skills, and it will be the deciding factor on whether they are awarded operational status.
As soon as the individual becomes an operational SAR Tech, they are immediately ready to participate in real life operations that may require their parachuting, mountaineering, hiking, swimming, and scuba diving skills, most often during adverse conditions.
Between 2010 and 2015, 57 candidates successfully graduated the Basic SAR Tech Course:
- 2015: 12 graduates (19 Wing Public Affairs, 2015).
- 2014: 8 graduates (Pugliese, 2014).
- 2013: 6 graduates (Reid, 2013).
- 2012: 8 graduates (Helicopters Magazine, 2012).
- 2011: 10 graduates (HeliHub, 2011).
- 2010: 13 graduates (The Londoner, 2010).
3.7 Further Courses
Upon completion of the Basic SAR Tech Course, individuals may be eligible for further courses, including (RCAF, 2013):
- Restricted Team Leader;
- Team Leader;
- Dive Supervisor;
- Overturned Vessel Extraction;
- Parachute recertification; and
- Medical recertification.
PART FOUR: MISCELLANEOUS
The Canadian Search and Rescue Technician training pipeline is open to all male and female officers and enlisted personnel of the Canadian Armed Forces, subject to certain criteria. SAR Tech training seeks to attract determined, highly-motivated, intelligent, reliable and physically fit individuals to serve with the Search and Rescue community. This article provides the basic information to allow individuals to make an informed judgement before applying for the Canadian SAR Tech training programme.
4.1 Useful Publications
- DND 2756: SAR Tech Applicant Physical Fitness Test.
- DND 2260: SAR Tech Fitness Maintenance Programme.
- CFP 154: Canadian Armed Forces Medical Standards for Military Occupations (A-MD-154-000/FP-000).
- Operations Manuals:
- Search & Rescue Technician Applicant Selection Test Protocol – Operations Manual (2012). Available from World Wide Web: https://www.cfmws.com/en/aboutus/psp/dfit/fitness/pages/search-and-rescue-technician-(sar-tech).aspx. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
- An Operations Manual for the Canadian Forces Search & Rescue Technician Physical Fitness Maintenance Programme (SAR Tech PFMP) (1999). Available from World Wide Web: https://www.cfmws.com/en/aboutus/psp/dfit/fitness/pages/search-and-rescue-technician-(sar-tech).aspx. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
- SAR Tech Applicant Physical Fitness Selection Test – Training Programme (2012). Available from World Wide Web: https://www.cfmws.com/en/aboutus/psp/dfit/fitness/pages/search-and-rescue-technician-(sar-tech).aspx. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
- Search and Rescue Posture Review 2013. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/about-reports-pubs/search-and-rescue-posture-review.page. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
- Pennell, J. (2012) The Future of Canadian Parachuting Capability. Master’s Thesis. National Defence Academy of Latvia. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.naa.mil.lv/~/media/NAA/Studijas/Magistra%20programma/Magistru%20darbi/MA_Pennell.ashx. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
- Petersen, S.R., Docherty, D. & Stickland, M. (2011) Development of Bona Fide Physical Fitness Standards for Canadian Forces (CF) Search and Rescue Technician (SAR-Tech) Applicants. Final Report. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.cfmws.com/en/AboutUs/PSP/DFIT/Documents/Publications%20and%20Reports/Search%20and%20Rescue%20Technicians%20Physical%20Fitness%20Selection%20Standard.pdf. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
4.2 Useful Links
- Carl @ http://rescue42.blogspot.co.uk/: a candidate who undertook SAR Tech training during 2008-2009.
- Pararescue Association of Canada: http://www.pararescue.ca/Para_Rescue/Welcome.html.
19 Wing Public Affairs (2015) RACF Search and Rescue Tech Graduate at 19 Wing. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/article-template-standard.page?doc=rcaf-search-and-rescue-techs-graduate-at-19-wing/ib6arbt3. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
Abercrombie, E. (2014) What It Takes – Search and Rescue Technicians. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/news/article.page?doc=what-it-takes-search-and-rescue-technicians/hs7g0ibb. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
Berthiaume, L. (2016) Liberals Considering Privatizing Search and Rescue Operations as part of Canadian Forces Review. Available from World Wide Web: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/liberals-considering-privatizing-search-and-rescue-operations-as-part-of-canadian-forces-review. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
Day, A. (2014) That Others May Live: In The Air With Canada’s Search And Rescue Technicians. Available from World Wide Web: https://legionmagazine.com/en/2014/03/that-others-may-live-in-the-air-with-canadas-search-and-rescue-technicians/. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
Goulet, J. (2015) Canadian Armed Forces Search-and-rescue Techs Graduate! Available from World Wide Web: http://www.mycomoxvalleynow.com/8650/canadian-armed-forces-search-and-rescue-techs-graduate/. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
Helicopters Magazine (2012) SAR Tech Graduates Ready to Put Their Lives on the Line. Available from World Wide Web: https://www.helicoptersmagazine.com/operations/sar-tech-graduates-ready-to-put-their-lives-on-the-line-3617. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
HeliHub (2011) Ten New Canadian SAR Techs Receive their Wings. Available from World Wide Web: http://helihub.com/2011/06/23/ten-new-canadian-sar-techs-receive-their-wings/. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
Horn, B. (2012) “We Will Find a Way”: Understanding the Legacy of Canadian Special Operations Forces. JSOU Report 12-2. February 2012. Available from World Wide Web: http://jsou.socom.mil/JSOU%20Publications/12-2_Horn_CanadianSOF(Feb12)_final.PDF. [Accessed: 17 April, 2016].
Lookout (2015) Trailblazer and Angel in an Orange Jumpsuit Retires. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.lookoutnewspaper.com/trailblazer-angel-orange-jumpsuit-retires/. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
Neilson, M. (2007) Former Coquitlam SAR Member in SAR Tech Training. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.coquitlam-sar.bc.ca/2007/04/former-coquitlam-sar-member-in-sar-tech-training/. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
Pararescue Association (2010) The History of Para Rescue and Search & Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs). Available from World Wide Web: http://www.pararescue.ca/Para_Rescue/History.html. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
Pennell, J. (2012) The Future of Canadian Parachuting Capability. Master’s Thesis. National Defence Academy of Latvia. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.naa.mil.lv/~/media/NAA/Studijas/Magistra%20programma/Magistru%20darbi/MA_Pennell.ashx. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
Pugliese, D. (2014) RCAF’s Newest Search and Rescue Technicians Join the Ranks after Comox Graduation. Available from World Wide Web: http://ottawacitizen.com/news/national/defence-watch/rcafs-newest-search-and-rescue-technicians-join-the-ranks-after-comox-graduation. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) (2013) Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.forces.gc.ca/en/training-establishments/cf-school-search-rescue.page. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) (2015) Search and Rescue. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.rcaf-arc.forces.gc.ca/en/search-rescue.page. [Accessed: 24 May, 2016].
Reid, T. (2013) Former RCAF Firefighter from Kincardine Joins Search and Rescue Trade. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.saugeentimes.com/24%20y/Willich%20achieves%20search%20and%20rescue%20team%20june%2017,%202013/Template.htm. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].
The Londoner (2010) Londoner Graduates as a Canadian Forces Search and Rescue Technician. Available from World Wide Web: http://www.thelondoner.ca/2010/06/29/londoner-graduates-as-a-canadian-forces-search-and-rescue-technician. [Accessed: 25 May, 2016].