#WomenInSAR blog 

The Royal Canadian Maritime Search and Rescue (RCMSAR) is the volunteer based organization that operates more than 30 marine rescue stations on the British Columbia coast and in the B.C. Interior.

From Vancouver’s busy harbour to the remote waters of the North Coast, RCMSAR volunteer crews are on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, ready to respond to marine emergencies. They conduct, on average, 800 marine rescues every year.

Managing Lifeboat Operations Across British Columbia

Amber Sheasgreen is the Operations Manager for RCMSAR, we’ve asked her a bit about her background and her role.

Amber grew up in a remote island community a 10-minute boat ride away from the coastal town of Prince Rupert on the north coast of British Columbia, Canada.  Going anywhere meant travelling by boat. 

As a result, Amber learnt to drive a speedboat when she was young and the importance of the RCMSAR was brought home when her mother needed to be rescued off an island in a storm after her boat lost its moorings and when her father rescued a man who had got into boat difficulties near their house. 

Amber had a few friends who were crew with RCMSAR and she realised it offered a great opportunity to increase her seamanship skills, while giving back to the community and helping people in need. 

She started volunteering eight years ago while also working for a not-for-profit business development and start-up organisation, volunteering for several other causes and chairing a women in business group. 

She completed a masters in business administration and leadership two years ago, while working as a longshoreman and then accepted the role of Manager of Operations for RCMSAR in 2018.

Amber says that her experience as a volunteer has been an enormous benefit to her role as operations manager, giving her an innate understanding of the training, missions, day to day operations and challenges that occur at a SAR station level. 

It’s also helped enormously in that she understands the organisation’s complex systems, SOPs and policies and can relate to crew and station leaders at all levels, simply because she has worked her way up through the roles.

She adds that her experience has earnt her an enormous amount of respect from members and CCG partners because she clearly knows what she’s talking about; “But even so, I’ve had some experiences when it’s been clear people didn’t expect a woman to be doing my job.  Driving a water taxi for a drilling company with a male security officer onboard, I had an instance when everyone who boarded, assumed the security officer was the captain and I was the new first aid attendant, they were quite taken aback when I sat in the helm seat!"

Even in the SAR world, I’ve had some volunteers and mariners who have dismissed my skills as an instructor, just because I am a woman.  Most come round though, when I can clearly demonstrate I can perform the skill or task I have asked them to complete as part of their evaluation.  In many of the operational meetings I am the only woman in the room and that means I often have to be more assertive, but it is getting better… I think.

Advising anyone else interested in a role like hers, Amber says that her marine and SAR experience has been invaluable, but her years managing volunteers in other organisations has been enormously helpful too. 

In addition, her past work planning events, communications experience and her qualifications in leadership and admin have contributed enormously to her skills organising large scale training operations, interagency initiatives, managing multiple projects and building relationships with key stakeholders.

She adds: “As a small team at RCMSAR HQ, my diverse skill set allows me to go from admin and office work one morning, to the vessel training the next, to an interagency operations meeting, to planning promotional events like the Operation This Is You – where we are working to highlight both the importance of SAR and women in SAR roles.

As RCMSAR Operations Manager, Amber oversees 33 volunteer stations across British Columbia. 

She has a direct relationship with each station manager and must make sure they comply with RCMSAR’s operational standards while training and on missions. 

She must work to try and resolve or support each station with any operational opportunities or challenges they face and is responsible for their overall safety. 

She’s also the ‘go-to’ person for the organisation’s online SAR management system, enquiries about gear and equipment, special operations and activity requests.

Her day to day work includes regular contact with volunteer leaders, behind the scenes procedure analysis and development, general communications work, reviewing operations and certificates and organising joint training operations with other agencies and the Canadian Coast Guard.

Only two of the RCMSAR stations are owner operator, all the others have community fundraised and owned vessels and each station is independent responsible for its own recruitment, training and maintenance. 

They may have internal SOPs, but they all still come under the RCMSAR umbrella so follow HQ’s crewing and training standards, policies and procedures. 

Training is obviously vitally important and neighbouring stations may train together to share experience and skills.

The RCMSAR HQ also offers training courses and certificates to ensure a standardized approach and to build teamwork across the stations.  Every two years HQ working closely with the RCMSAR’s volunteer safety and training committee, organises a much bigger training exercise to really test the volunteer’s skills and build experience.

Describing her role, Amber says: “One of the biggest challenges of managing 1000 volunteers is communications, it can be difficult to disseminate information effectively, even with the advances in technology we all enjoy today. Our volunteers are incredibly diverse, from all walks of life, demographics, experience, personalities, and of course each station’s local community.  It can be a challenge but an opportunity too as we have everything from commercial mariners, to doctors, to business and finance folk, to trades people, to lawyers and everything in between, they bring an amazing and wonderful breadth of experience and skills."

Photo Gallery

Managing Lifeboat Operations Across British Columbia - Amber Sheasgreen

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