Page updated: 7 January 2021
As of early 2020, readers will have noticed a significant increase in the number of mobility-assisted vehicles in usage in will it have on SAR?
Mobility-assisted vehicles are taking off. Why is this and what does it mean for Search and Rescue?
Mobility-assisted vehicles include electric bikes (e-bikes), electric scooters, mobility scooters, canoes with inboard electric propulsion, and even electric water bikes for the very wealthy (see, for example, https://nz.manta5.com/).
Part of the reason these technologies taking off is that the costs of ‘normal’ bikes and scooters has stayed reasonably stable over recent years, while the cost of electrical components like batteries has fallen significantly.
For example, many e-bikes use lithium-ion batteries, the price of which has plummeted since 2010 and continues to fall (Goldie-Scot 2019).
The increased use of small, electrically-powered, vehicles has significant potential implications for demand for, and supply of, search and rescue services.
On the demand side, the potential implications were well summed up by one member of the NZSAR Council, who commented that:
“All of these have the ability to take people further and faster into the wilderness, and to facilitate the same for older, less fit or less mobile people.
The implications are greater search areas and in many cases a need for much better (and different) preparation.
It doesn’t take much imagination to visualise SAR looking for a septuagenarian who has had a blood sugar crisis after getting a flat battery on the e-bike they rode up a back-country track on a whim – and bad weather is setting in.”
Note that, in the example above, two trends are converging to create a novel and potentially dangerous set of circumstances.
The first is the tendency for people (particularly New Zealanders) to be over-confident and under-prepared when heading outdoors.
The second is the ability to get further, more quickly, which can increase the necessary radius of search and rescue operations, making them significantly more challenging in the process.
There is potential for the SAR sector to ‘fight fire with fire’ when it comes to electronically-powered vehicles.
For example, Central Okanagan Search and Rescue (COSAR), in the Canadian province of British Columbia, has used e-bikes in both urban and rural rescue operations. They now have a total of 11 e-bikes that can be used in the event of an emergency. Brian Stainsby of COSAR commented that:
“It’s usually very steep or somewhat rugged and areas that would normally take us a lot longer and likely tire out our members as they get to their subjects that we would locate… most definitely it can certainly make a difference between somebody surviving and not surviving, or having a worse injury versus recovery much quicker because we get to them quicker.” (Lam 2018)
In January 2019, e-bike manufacturer Frank Witowski, donated the first e-bike to Search and Rescue in Nelson, receiving very positive reviews from LandSAR staff about the ability to cover significantly greater distance more quickly. In particular, they noted that the bike had enabled him to cover a 50km loop in 3 hours and 45 minutes (Anderson 2019).
Of course, reliance on electronics has both strengths and weaknesses. For example, given that much NZ bush terrain is very steep, some areas of the wilderness may not be suitable for bikes at all, let alone e-bikes. Similarly, electric water bikes may struggle in rough waters (although arguably so would swimmers!) Furthermore, one of the comments made by LandSAR in trialling the e-bike, was that the battery was very low by the end of the exercise. This makes having spare batteries critical if using electronic devices as part of search and rescue operations. It also suggests that systems that can easily switch between electric and manual mode are likely to be more suitable than purely electric ones.