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All around the world SAR organisations are having to adapt to a changed way of life and often dramatic restrictions on movement as a result of the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Julie Schneider Executive Creative Director, Virgin Islands Search & Rescue (VISAR) discusses how life has altered on the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and how VISAR has adapted to support the local community while still remaining on call 24/7 for any SAR emergencies.

Since the start of the crisis, VISAR’s volunteers have been working with the British Virgin Islands Government in many different ways, including helping to transfer any suspected COVID-19 patients from surrounding islands to the hospital. 

To achieve this, VISAR worked with medical staff and the BVI Health Authority to follow all the World Health Organization guidelines, as well as the IMRF’s COVID-19 Operational Guidance.

Phil Aspinall, VISAR’s Operations Manager, talked to each volunteer crew member individually, to explain what they would be expected to do and to answer any questions. 

This ensured that everyone understood not only the procedures that had been put in place to protect both the VISAR volunteers and the public, but also any resulting personal quarantine implications.

VISAR also implemented a new Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) covering the requirements for wearing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and the decontamination procedures to be followed. 

To date, although VISAR has only had to transport one patient (who subsequently tested negative for COVID-19), the teams have learned a lot. 

For example, in the incident debrief with the hospital, it was agreed that protecting a patient’s privacy was also an important aspect of such operations that hadn’t been fully appreciated. 

As a result, measures have now been put in place to ensure this in future.

As the pandemic progressed, on 4 April 2020, the BVI Government mandated a 14-day full lockdown with nobody allowed to travel either on the water or on land (unless it was to access medical treatment) except for Essential Workers.

To enable VISAR crews to report to base for a shout and to complete their weekly medical and boat checks, the Government granted VISAR crew members Essential Worker status.

When the lockdown was subsequently extended, all supermarkets remained closed for instore shopping, although food and medicine could still be delivered to those on land. 

The BVI Government provided funds for the main grocery stores to assemble food hampers for all those without access to online shopping. VISAR has a longstanding partnership with Riteway Food Markets and quickly recruited three shifts of volunteers to work 24/7 packing and distributing 3,500 vital food parcels. ​ 

The Royal Virgin Islands Police Force (RVIPF) also asked VISAR for assistance in visiting the 75 boats in the major moorings/anchor fields, to ensure that they also knew how to access food, fuel, water, and medicine. 

The majority of these boats were privately owned and crewed yachts, some of whom had found themselves stuck because the borders at their intended destination had been closed.  All were very grateful for the information and assistance provided. 

Since then,  Phil Aspinall has been collaborating with the RVIPF and Customs to monitor all boat movements and has been working with boat owners needing to make essential trips to establish the reason for the trip, when they will be on the water and for how long. 

He is also assisting with Customs paperwork and collecting prescriptions from the pharmacy for anyone requiring medicines.

Luckily there have been few COVID-19 cases in the BVI and the Government is now allowing a phased lifting of the lockdown. 

Julie Schneider says that: “Whilst the pandemic has changed the type of emergency VISAR responds to, it has not changed the willingness of the crew, all of whom are volunteers, to step up and help those in need.  Our coordinators are well versed in solving logistical challenges and dealing with complex situations that continually evolve; a critical skill in dealing with any type of disaster response. Whilst we do not expect to return to normal, we are ready to embrace our ‘new regular’. Come what may, VISAR will be here to assist and help the BVI community.

Like many other SAR organisations in other parts of the world, the BVI’s borders have been closed to both business and tourist visitors which has had a dramatic impact on the organisation’s revenue streams.  

The COVID-19 pandemic means that none of VISAR’s regular community fundraising activities can take place. 

As a result, VISAR is now making a direct appeal to its supporters for donations to continue its work saving lives at sea.