Behind the yellow tape

Civilians given an inside look at Thetis Lake search-and-rescue

By Joanne Hatherly, Times Colonist June 25, 2009 1:10 AM

Times Colonist Emergency services descended on Thetis Lake yesterday morning for a land-and-water search exercise that showcased an operation few civilians get to see from the inside.

Whenever searches are called, the area is secured by police, with both the public and media left standing on the other side of the police yellow tape. That veil was lifted when RCMP invited media behind the tape for the exercise.

RCMP Const. Marc LeBlanc outlined the scenario to more than two dozen emergency personnel, including RCMP officers, firefighters from View Royal and Colwood, and CRD parks staff. Incident commanders were selected on the spot.

The leaders -- View Royal firefighter Troy Mollin, RCMP Corp. Mike Holmes and CRD parks supervisor Jim Bell -- huddled in the operations trailer. There they listed resources -- the number of boats, personnel and other equipment at their disposal.

Command centres were established, and signals were reviewed.

Leaders then disseminated an enormous amount of information, starting with the object of the operation: to locate and rescue or recover two men reported missing after a fight at midnight the night before on one of the islands in Thetis Lake. Searchers were given rough descriptions of the men and told that witnesses said one had been stabbed.

As is the case in a real search, not all information was available at the outset -- investigators continued scouring for information by interviewing witnesses and bystanders. Throughout the operation, new information came in via radios --that one man was diabetic, that a gunshot was heard in the area, that one of the men may be violent and should be approached with caution.

The leaders then split the lake into sections, gave detailed directions to the CRD parks staff who would do the foot patrol along the shoreline, and informed searchers that for the purposes of the exercise, the lake had a sewage outfall, so divers should be suited up in hazardous-material diving suits and avoid direct contact with the water.

Parks staff then apprised searchers of lake depths, shoreline dangers such as cliffs, and where most bodies have been located in real searches

RCMP divers Kurt Rosenberg, 33, and Martin Neveu, 32, piled into a grey Zodiac with a 90-horse Mercury outboard and headed to the island where the fight was supposed to have taken place. There they, with other RCMP dive members, set out oxygen tanks, and set up a dive-control system that linked the divers to an oxygen supply, communications line and a sensor that monitored their depth.

Diver safety is paramount. The system is designed to take two failures before divers resort to a third portable oxygen tank on their backs, and each had a large knife strapped to his leg in case he became trapped in debris underwater, or had to cut himself loose from the oxygen and communication line they call the "umbilicous."

Their suits and masks completely sealed them from the water, an important consideration in polluted waters, or when retrieving decaying bodies. Inside the face mask was a communications device, so divers and ground staff could feed information to one another.

The divers jumped into the water and for hours after, their air bubbles could be seen on the surface as they fanned back and forth along the lake bottom in 180-degree arcs. In a few more hours, they would find the gun, and one of the missing men pinned to the lake bottom.

Before then, however, one of the teams searching a second island shouted out that a man in rough shape has been found.

The "victim" was strapped to a gurney and a line was set up to gently lower him to the waiting rescue Zodiac.

The man, volunteer Omer LeBlanc, survived all the way to the boat launch, then "died."

View Royal fire chief Paul Hurst said the exercise strengthens the teamwork between police, fire and search personnel, especially as they come into the outdoor recreation season. "We learn something every time," said Hurst. "It proves that scenario-based training between agencies works very well."

Holmes said a post-event meeting will examine the timelines and resource availability.

Past exercises have uncovered weaknesses, such as in establishing radio communication links among different branches of emergency services that operate on different systems, a weakness that was addressed in this operation.

"It's ultimately about did we find the people, were they safe?" Holmes said.

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