words :: Drew Wayland // photos :: Courtesy of Bruce Brink.
A Whistler search-and-rescue pro talks to ML about saving lives in the Coast Range and the dangers of heroism
Bruce Brink has helped save dozens of lives throughout his 40-year career, but don’t call him a hero.
“The second you start to seek out life-threatening situations,” he says, “even if you’re potentially saving someone else’s life, that’s a sign that maybe you should be in a different line of work.”
A recently retired search-and-rescue paramedic as well as an amateur boat captain and airplane pilot, Brink’s career has run the gamut of mountain safety roles, from his years of work with the Whistler-Blackcomb ski patrol to his time on the Vancouver Olympic Committee as Chief of Patrol/Air Rescue Operations in 2010. He and various teams of trained search-and-rescue specialists have rescued skiers from avalanches, retrieved hopelessly lost summer hikers and returned quite a few rogue children to their families since Brink first arrived in Whistler in 1980.
“The second you start to seek out life-threatening situations, even if you’re potentially saving someone else’s life, that’s a sign that maybe you should be in a different line of work.”
Brink’s other roles include leading the development of the Whistler-Blackcomb air operations program, responsible for all rescue pilot and technician training. Brink was an ALS/CCP flight paramedic with the BC Government and a clinical instructor with the Advanced Care Paramedic Program at the BC Ambulance Service.
Toward the latter half of his career, he took responsibility for Whistler-Blackcomb’s avalanche dog program, helping to train and raise several search dogs as indispensable members of the search-and-rescue effort.
Now in the first year of his retirement, Brink has plenty of stories to share and advice to impart. We sat down with him to discover exactly what it takes to make it in mountain rescue.
What are some of the strategies and rescue methods that you’ve utilized throughout your career?
Bruce Brink: Well first of all, you have to consider that these operations are very organized. We know exactly where the subject is, basically ski right to them, provide some first aid and you transport them off the mountain. That’s the rescue role of the ski patrol. However, Whistler & Blackcomb are really big mountains with lots and lots of avalanche terrain. And so that can become really risky and really high stakes if you’re taking a team into an avalanche area because there’s been an accident. That’s serious mountain rescue stuff.
First of all, we have good operational pre-planning. We have been very, very diligent with our team training to match that pre-plan. We have a team where everybody knows that they have to rely on every other member of the team. Teamwork is an essential part of our safety in doing mountain rescues. If we are going to do a mountain rescue, whether it be with ski patrol or with a volunteer search and rescue team, we’re going into an area or a circumstance that’s already caused an accident.
In other words, this is not just another day in the mountains. This is a situation that has already demonstrated danger, in the fact that somebody’s been injured or killed. You’re going straight into that. It’s very similar to a firefighter going into a burning house or policemen going into a gunfight, going into unknown hazardous scenarios. This is not ‘it might happen.’ This is not ‘it could be an accident.’ This is it, it really has already happened. So then you really have to fall back on your teamwork.
How big are these teams?
Bruce: We don’t move into an area unless you have somebody watching your back. And so it would be at least a team of two. And in a climbing scenario, it could just be a team of two with a number of other people standing by a distance away. Or it could be hundreds, depending on the situation. I’ve been on searches for kids, little kids in urban areas where there may be 100 people helping as well. Not all part of the team. They’re part of the effort.
Is there a particular search operation you find yourself remembering often or more than others?
Bruce: Well I have to say, the coolest one of all wasn’t even a mountain rescue–it was the search for a 12-year-old boy with autism that went missing in the middle of the night. This was during a huge rainstorm in the lower mainland. We got the call, got the avalanche dog and down we went to locate this kid, who had curled up in a fetal ball in the ditch on the side of the highway, semi-trucks just flying by.
The dog picked up the kid’s scent from a quarter-mile away because of all the wind being pushed away from the road by the trucks. We got there and by some miracle, he was still alive, middle of winter, freezing rain and all. We shot the kid right onto the stretcher and the dog ended up jumping on there with him. When we pulled up at the hospital he was just holding the dog as tight as he could. It wasn’t a particularly dangerous or adrenaline-inducing rescue, although there’ve been plenty of those, but it’s certainly the one I think about the most.
How has improving technology affected the way your job is carried out?
Bruce: Certainly in urban areas or in parts of the mountains with a lot of infrastructure, technology has improved things like our response times, our abilities to locate people, and things like that. But I would actually venture to say that out where it gets a little more wild or isolated, technology has put people in dangerous positions they might not have been in otherwise. You see a lot of people come to the area who think they’ll be able to find a place up in the mountains that they saw online, or use their phones to navigate. But there’s not a lot of signal out in a lot of these places, and when the cell phone battery dies, well, that’s it. Cell phones allow you to tell us where you are, what your condition is, but they have gotten plenty of people into risky situations. It’s a double-edged sword.
Specialized technology has helped us a little bit out there, especially in regards to updated imaging systems that allow our helicopter pilots to take off and land at night. But you have to understand that the actual rescue procedure, once we’ve located the person, uses tried-and-true safety measures and precautions to keep everyone as secure as possible.
Have you ever been part of an operation that was ‘unsuccessful,’ in that the missing person lost their life or was never found?
Bruce: There’s no failure in search and rescue. What we have to do is back up from the possibility that somebody is going to be dead. We back up to the point of asking if our team functioned as expected.
Our team might go to this thing knowing that we did everything we could within a safe envelope of operations. That somebody died is a sidestep to all of that, right? Because if you say, well, somebody’s dead, and oh my god, that’s tragic and terrible, it’s going to scar me for life, you won’t survive in search and rescue for very long. You wouldn’t be a fireman or a policeman or paramedic. You have to accept the fact that these things do happen. And you have to come to some sort of terms with it.
And people who are not able to do that are the ones who start to have PTSD and that sort of thing. Not to say this doesn’t affect every one of us when we get involved with a failure or something that was not a success in the sense of retrieving a live and healthy, happy person. It affects everybody to a degree. You can’t take the responsibility for somebody else’s bad luck. You’re part of the story, but you’re not an intimate part of the story. I think that’s the proper way you approach it, your professional approach, but it doesn’t mean we’re any less human. It just means that yes, this happened but next week, another one may happen and the week after that.
What aspects of working in search-and-rescue are the most challenging for people coming into the profession?
Bruce: There’s this idea that people go into mountain rescue in a selfless manner, and they’re risking their lives to save somebody else. If I hear this, I hear somebody saying, you know, we risk our lives to go to the search and rescue this person. I say, ‘You’re an amateur and you’re probably going to be short lived.’
No, this is another day at the office for us. The actual mature, professional rescue occurs, whether they’re paid or they volunteer, when they understand that they’re moving into a situation that’s already caused a problem for somebody else. It’s not their emergency. I think you could probably put that in bold letters with a red underline. It’s not my emergency. That’s a thing I pontificate about quite a lot when I’m doing training. No matter how bad this looks, it’s still not your emergency. It’s somebody else’s emergency. If somebody else’s one time bad luck emergency is routine work for you, and you’re gonna have to do it again and again. So it better not be an emergency.
It’s philosophically correct, I think, that if you are repetitively and intentionally getting involved in an emergency that could result in injury or death, you’re nuts. You shouldn’t be there. If that’s your mindset, you’re in a long line of work. We take calculated risks, we balance risk, and we manage risk. We don’t deny that it’s there. But there’s a point where mature rescue personnel will say ‘enough.’ I have to back away from this and I have to find a different way of achieving this objective. But we don’t we don’t run into burning buildings and we don’t run into we don’t run into avalanche terrain, where there’s still a hangfire that could kill us and anybody else.
People think that search-and-rescue gives you a chance to be heroic. In other words, people think this is the one time in your life where you get a chance to rush up into the path of the moving train and snatch the baby away. A clear save. You’ll save the baby’s life or you won’t. You roll the dice. And that’s fair enough. That’s true heroism, a real close call and you took the chance because the risk was worth it. But if you have somebody that purposely, intentionally searches out opportunities to risk their life to save somebody else’s life, that’s not heroism, that’s something else I don’t know what the correct word would be. But that’s the person that should not be a policeman or a fireman or a paramedic or a rescue pilot or a mountain rescue person or what have you.
Brink might take a business-like approach to mountain rescue, but it’s his caution and reliance on pre-planning that have made him an effective team member for almost 40 years. In a world of increasing uncertainty, what can we learn from one man’s reliance on the tried-and-true methods passed down by those before him?
“The mountains are dangerous and unforgiving, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon,” he said, “but it’s safe to say that we’ve got a good working relationship going.”
Brink formally retired in 2019, but he remains active as a volunteer resource member of the North Shore Rescue Team in Vancouver and as a member of the ICAR Medical Commission. Although he sold his last plane over a year ago, Brink still finds peace flying and boating around the expansive Georgia Strait with his wife, Karen. —ML