Volunteer Burnout, Recruitment Challenges, and Mental Health

Community SAR responders “wear a lot of hats” in Nunavut. Some are members of their community’s GSAR team, Coast Guard Auxiliary unit, Canadian Ranger patrol, and are CASARA volunteers.

“All of it is very stressful, very tiring. When you have two dozen searches a year, it takes so much out of you. It’s easy to get exhausted. Sometimes you want to quit. Sometimes you are searching for people you love. Sometimes you don’t find them or find them too late. It’s all hard.”

Community Responder, Kitikmeot SAR.

Searches are not easy. Maintaining a SAR team is not easy. SAR Committees have regular meetings, organize fundraisers, and have to take care of all the administrative work that is required to maintain non-profit society status. During a search, community responders might have to organize searchers, get the message out, gather more volunteers, inform the RCMP and/or hamlet, gather information, communicate to the community, go on the radio, get groceries, gas, and supplies – and all of this does not even include searching on the land, often in challenging conditions. The heavy workload, combined with the lack of volunteers and the fact that missing persons are often friends and family, leads to burn out.

In many of the communities, finding enough volunteers can be a challenge. As a result, the same people are on call all the time and the same small group of people respond to all of the searches. This is unsustainable and can lead to burnout and ineffectiveness. The Gjoa Haven Coast Guard Auxiliary unit, for example, was hoping to recruit 20 people, but this has proven difficult. As it stands, the same people will be on call for most of the summer, which will hinder their ability to get on the land and hunt and fish for their families. Many of the community participants who shared their insights are involved in multiple groups responsible for SAR – some individuals, for example, are GSAR members, CCGA, Rangers, and CASARA volunteers. The simple fact that many of these volunteers wear “multiple hats” can lead decision makers outside of the community to overestimate the amount of local capacity upon which they can draw. Furthermore, levels of community involvement differ across the Kitikmeot, with some community groups reporting a high degree of participation and others suggesting that it was hard to recruit sufficient volunteers to manage a high volume of searches.

Across the communities, it is a challenge to get young adults engaged in SAR. Even those who are interested might not have adequate on the land experience/skills or suitable equipment.

Kitikmeot Roundtable on SAR participants also highlighted that community groups do not only require volunteers who can go out on the land, they also need people who can handle the administrative and community side of a search.

“This is the real challenge, getting people involved. If we had more volunteers, we would have more people willing to respond. It would take the burden off. It might even encourage people to train more together if the burden was spread around a bit more. We need people who are willing to put the time in and learn how to do SAR. But we have no incentives, no perks, except that you are saving peoples lives.”

Community Participant, Kitikmeot Roundtable on Search and Rescue.

Some community responders suggested that a lack of perceived enticements or incentives make it difficult to recruit new members. As is the case across Canada, SAR volunteers who serve an excess of 200 eligible hours in a calendar year are able to claim a $3,000 non-refundable tax credit on their personal tax return (resulting in an average of $450 in tax savings), but many volunteers in the Kitikmeot are unfamiliar with this benefit or are not sure how to access it.

Searchers in Northern communities are usually family, friends, or acquaintances with the people for whom they are looking. This makes searching incredibly stressful. Searchers have found missing people who have died from accidents and the elements, and whose bodies are in poor condition. In certain incidents, members of community SAR organizations have been asked to assist the RCMP with body recovery. These situations are very traumatic. Searchers have little to no access to trauma counselling or mental health supports after they complete a search.

Members of the Gjoa Haven Canadian Ranger patrol debrief after an exercise. Debriefing should also be a regular part of SAR operations.

Suggestions and Solutions

  • Think of incentives to encourage people to volunteer for SAR and participate in training. Ideas for incentives included: a small annual cash bonus, equipment and gear, and Nunavut or Kitikmeot SAR clothing and gear (“everyone loves swag!”).
  • Some community responders wondered if a financial stipend could be awarded to SAR volunteers who participate in training, exercises, fundraising, searches, etc. Other participants worried that using financial incentives to recruit more volunteers could undermine the basis of the entire SAR system and other volunteer-based organizations in the North (including firefighters).
  • After every search there should be a sharing circle led by the elders. This allows for debriefing and critical incident stress management.
  • There should be community meetings put on after every successful search to celebrate, share lessons learned, and educate community members.
%d bloggers like this: