On Friday morning, after months of preparation, the Yorkton chapter of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) was set to host the annual training event (SAREX) for volunteers from the four western provinces. The simulated targets were in place, the command centre was buzzing, the planes were fueled and the organizers were ready to go.
What they weren't expecting was a real emergency.
"That was kind of interesting," said Frank Schuurmans, CASARA national and Saskatchewan president. "On our way up to SAREX we actually got a call from the RCMP. There was a missing person up in the Preeceville area. He was disabled and they were quite concerned.
"We had an approximate location of where he was and commenced the search. We actually found him in his truck, stuck in the mud, so that was kind of rewarding that we were able to help him out and that was even before we started the exercise."
At approximately 2:45 a.m. on Friday morning Mike Doroschuk's wife reported to Canora RCMP that the 83-year-old man had not returned home from farming, which was apparently "out-of-character."
With 17 aircraft and search and rescue crews from B.C., Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba on hand, CASARA was able to mount an unprecedented response, said Ray Sass, a CASARA volunteer and member of the SAREX planning committee.
SAREX is all about practicing search and rescue techniques, keeping members current in their skills and training new volunteers, but Phil Pardo, a pilot from Edmonton said there is even more to it than that.
"The extra piece you get out of these kind of events is seeing how others do their things compared to us and, although we're very standardized, differences still creep in so it's very useful to see that," he said.
It also gives volunteers a chance to work in different terrain. Previous recent SAREX events have been held in Yellowknife, NWT; Red Deer, AB; Cranbrook, B.C.; and Prince Albert.
"It's useful because on a major search, we don't get many, but when we do, we have to pull resources from all over the place and quite often that means even from other provinces so crews do mix and match," Pardo said. "We focus on our own zones, but across zones and provinces as well, so it's quite helpful in that regard."
CASARA is a strictly volunteer organization funded by the Department of National Defence. From coast to coast to coast, 365 days a year, 24/7, the organization's more than 2,800 pilots, navigators, spotters, search coordinators, electronic search specialists, radio operators and administrators are ready to provide support to the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) and emergency services organizations in the event of emergencies.
The RCAF was on hand for the weekend's exercises with a Hercules, the workhorse of search and rescue missions. Military advisors trained nine local people to work as spotters on the Hercules.
Captain Ben Toenders, CASARA military liaison, said CASARA volunteers are invaluable to DND. He said they are the front line. Because they are dispersed across the country, local CASARA member organizations can often mobilize faster saving precious time.
And, Toenders said, it saves the taxpayers a lot of money.
"Recently, the auditor general did a report on the value of CASARA," he said. "The military spends approximately two-and-a-half million dollars a year on CASARA and we get 10 million dollars worth of value from them."
With small private planes costing approximately $100 to $200 an hour to fly compared to $30,000 for the Hercules, the math speaks for itself.
Schuurmans was very pleased with the 2013 SAREX.
"To see that our training standards are consistent right across the country, that we can take crew from B.C. or Alberta or Saskatchewan and either intermix them or have them work the same way, search the same, cooperate the same, is really rewarding to see that on such a large organization."