Tragically, on the afternoon of July 25, 2020, a young man drowned in Cultus Lake near the Entrance Bay picnic grounds. Seven members of the public who were present that afternoon, submitted a letter to The Chilliwack Progress and it was printed Aug. 14, 2020.
I am grateful for their letter because I believe it serves several constructive purposes:
• Expressing their frustrations at the collective emergency response through writing is one method of promoting healing after witnessing a traumatic event;
• It creates another opportunity for agencies and first responders to self-reflect, and;
• Their letter provides a launching point for me to share my experience and to promote education.
I am a search manager and 24-year member of Chilliwack Search and Rescue (SAR). I also happen to be a 15-year resident of the Cultus Lake community, so when our team was paged by the RCMP for an emergency response it took me less than 10 minutes to arrive at the Entrance Bay parking lot. I parked behind an RCMP cruiser, flicked on my emergency flashers, grabbed my portable VHF radio and quickly made my way to liaise with the RCMP. Details were confirmed and Unified Command was established among the RCMP, BC Ambulance, Cultus Lake Fire Dept and Chilliwack SAR. There were likely thousands of people recreating at Entrance Bay that afternoon. I noticed one man was in the water searching, as were several people in boats and a woman on a paddle board.
My role as an on-scene search manager was to continually assess the incident site, co-ordinate the rescue response of all SAR members who drove direct to the incident site, maintain communication with the SAR members responding from our rescue hall (north of the highway) with emergency vehicles and watercraft, and to keep the RCMP incident commander updated on our response.
Our professionally-trained volunteer members who first reported to our rescue hall were en route to Cultus Lake in less than 30 minutes. These members had to “drop” whatever they had been doing that afternoon, drive to our hall, pull out our rescue trucks and connect boat trailers, secure the hall and then drive to the lake. Emergency lights and sirens were used to clear the heavy traffic volume.
On scene at Entrance Bay, all the emergency responders I engaged with were focused on their respective tasks. We all had specific tasks to do, and we carried those out to the best of our abilities. Despite that, I experienced feelings such as helplessness, as my brain continued to assess and plan while I waited for my team members to arrive. One by one, the SAR members who had responded in their personal vehicles arrived on scene, hurriedly dressed in their water gear, and began searching the area where the young man was last seen. Some of our SAR members used a mask and snorkel to assist with their search efforts but the turbid water mitigated the effectiveness of a visual search. Our watercraft had launched at the Main Beach boat launch a short time before the young man was found in the water by a member of the public. (Note: B.C. SAR teams are not permitted to conduct dive operations. That responsibility lies with the RCMP and is set up as a recovery team. B.C. does not have rescue divers sitting ready to be deployed for incidents in our lakes and streams.)
Once the young man was on shore, the BCAS crews engaged and fire dept members initiated CPR. BC Parks staff held up a curtain of tarps to provide privacy. I let our watercraft crews know that they could return to our hall. The SAR members that had been searching the lake began to remove their water gear. The mood was sombre. We spoke with the woman who had been searching on her paddle board; she was distraught, and we assured her that she had done everything she could possibly have done. I debriefed with the SAR members who were on scene with me and I did a quick assessment on their mental health. I liaised one final time with the RCMP and we then left the scene while RCMP, BCAS and Cultus Fire remained. Later that evening I did another check on the mental health of one of our members.
A young man’s life was lost that day at Cultus Lake. Sincere condolences to the friends and family of this young man. Our team did everything we could have possibly done.
So, what can we all do to prevent drownings? Education, preparedness, and training are where most of our time and resources should be focused. Everyone should learn to swim whether that be through formal lessons or some other source. It is crucial that individuals know and respect their own ability. The area you plan to swim should be researched before you go. Consider things such as:
• Is there a lifeguard on duty?
• Water temperature – warm lake vs glacial fed stream
• Currents, drop offs, undercut banks, debris – each poses a potential threat to swimmers
• Your fitness and skill
• The weather forecast – avoid streams if the forecast calls for significant rainfall
Additionally, know that your risk of drowning increases if you swim alone, consume alcohol or other drugs prior to swimming, or choose to swim without wearing a personal flotation device.
Detailed information on safety and preparedness can be found on the AdventureSmart website (adventuresmart.ca)
Chilliwack Search and Rescue
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