North Shore Rescue's Mike Danks says saving people's lives can be therapeutic

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      North Shore Rescue has been a part of Mike Danks’s life for as long as he can remember. The Lynn Valley resident’s dad introduced him to the organization when he himself was a volunteer. As one of several members who donate their time as rescuers, Danks loves it just as much now as he did when he started 20 years ago.

      “My dad was a long-time member of the team, so it was just a way of life,” Danks says in an interview at a North Vancouver coffee shop. “I used to go to training with him and knew right away that as soon as I could, I would join the team. So at 19 I did.

      “It consumes an incredible amount of time, but it’s a passion for me,” says the North Vancouver native. “I know for myself, working on a rescue is calming for me. It’s actually therapeutic. You know when you’re out on these calls that you’re going to make a positive difference for somebody, for a member of your community, and that’s true even for the very unfortunate calls where someone has not made it. You’re there for their family and you’re going to bring them back.”

      Danks is now the group’s team leader, having stepped into the shoes of the late and legendary Tim Jones. A firefighter with the City of North Vancouver, Danks is also a married father of three young children. During his rare downtime, he enjoys mountain biking with his family and hanging out at Lynn Valley Village. Humbly, he says it’s impossible for anyone to fill Jones’s shoes: Jones died suddenly last January and often put in more than 40 hours a week on top of his job as a paramedic. “I get a lot of support from fellow team members,” he says. “Collectively, everybody has stepped up…and we’re continuing Tim’s legacy.”

      Jones also advocated for public funding for search and rescue in general in B.C. He had launched a campaign to help North Shore Rescue (NSR) with its operating costs, which continues in his name with the Tim Jones Legacy Fund. Although the organization receives some government funds, consistent financial backing is lacking, making it an ongoing challenge to manage hefty expenses for things like gear, personal protective equipment, uniforms, and other supplies that, combined, cost tens of thousands of dollars. NSR continues to pursue Jones’s push for funding, though Danks admits it’s a mighty task for a group made up entirely of volunteers.

      “It’s an ongoing battle that we don’t have time to fight,” he says. “We’re about doing the rescues, so, unfortunately, it ends up on the back burner.

      “For every rescue, there are probably 12 hours of work that goes into it behind the scenes,” he adds. The organization also has seven SAR stations and 10 emergency-supply caches throughout the North Shore, all of which have to be regularly checked, maintained, and replenished.

      Volunteers like Danks are required to train rigorously on a regular basis: every Tuesday night, plus one weekend out of every four. They’re expected to take special courses, too, such as wilderness first aid, in addition to the “call-outs”, which often happen at night and in terrible weather. The group averages 80 to 90 calls a year, which works out to about two a week all year.

      In the summer, they’re looking mostly for missing or injured hikers; during the winter, it’s often lost or hurt skiers and snowboarders. Rescues can last several hours or even days—the Theta Lake rescue in 2007, for instance, went on for three days. Ideal candidates are extremely fit (for instance, they can do the Grouse Grind in less than an hour and can carry a backpack weighing up to 50 pounds over uneven terrain for long distances) and have experience hiking, climbing, mountaineering, and camping, among other criteria.

      In addition to conducting rescues in wilderness environments, often putting their own lives at risk, NSR volunteers also help with urban searches, assisting police in cases of lost or missing children. Volunteers are also prepared to provide disaster relief during floods or earthquakes, help other rescue teams in the province and in the state of Washington, and offer educational seminars to school and other groups.

      Jones was adamant that those who are rescued should not have to foot the bill, since such a rule could discourage some people from seeking desperately needed assistance in the first place and possibly lead to tragic outcomes. It’s a stand that NSR maintains.

      “People aren’t intentionally meaning to get themselves into trouble, even if they go out of bounds,” Danks says. “When they’re calling us, it’s because they need us. They need our help and that’s what we signed up for.

      “It can be very taxing on your family and your social life,” he says of being a volunteer, “but we’re all in the same boat, and it really comes down to a passion. It’s all about working as a team and about patient care. It’s such a good group of volunteers, and we’re making a difference in not only one person’s life but in the lives of their family and friends too. It’s good for the soul.”

      Follow Gail Johnson on Twitter @gailjohnsonwork.