Award recognizes volunteer search efforts

NANAIMO – Jim Spencer receives province's Public Safety Lifeline Volunteer Award for air search and rescue work.

Jim Spencer

Jim Spencer

Knowing where not to look for something can help give you your best chance of finding it.

Jim Spencer, 64, of Nanaimo knows what it takes to determine where not to look. He’s spent years searching for lost and missing people and aircraft as the air deputy for central Vancouver Island with the Provincial Emergency Program’s Civil Air Search and Rescue Association.

The civilian volunteer organization, paid for by the Department of National Defence, assists the Royal Canadian Air Force with search and rescue operations. The central Island unit is based at Nanaimo Airport.

Spencer was presented with B.C.’s Public Safety Lifeline Volunteer Award for outstanding achievements by Suzanne Anton, attorney general and minister of justice, at a ceremony at the B.C. legislature May 26.

The air deputy acts as search coordinator and overall manager for search groups and team leader on actual search operations.

“We’re defining search areas, how we’re going to search, we’re assigning crews to search the area. We’re liaising with the military because we work with the military and are the civilian extension of the military,” Spencer said.

Spencer, a certified navigator, also flies aboard the unit’s Cessna search aircraft.

Since he started as a spotter in 2005, Spencer has taken part in numerous searches, some of which covered large sections of the province. Several years ago when a pilot and his aircraft went missing en route from Revelstoke to Qualicum Beach, Spencer’s crew covered the area between Hope and Merritt.

“For a couple days there were about 18 aircraft on that search,” Spencer said. “You can imagine the size of the area from Revelstoke to Qualicum and all the possibilities.”

Spencer said, to his knowledge, that aircraft was never found, but even successful searches don’t have happy endings when crashes prove fatal.

Searches can last days aboard cramped aircraft and require perseverance and patience.

“The thing about searching is, whether you’re the lucky person who happens to find the target, or you’re one of the crews that determines the target is not in a particular area, they’re both equally valuable,” Spencer said. “I haven’t spotted a target myself. The idea is to be there as part of the larger picture.”

More recently Spencer has used his leadership position to help organize the creation of a new search headquarters at Nanaimo Airport, which increased the headquarters’ capacity, unit training and storage facilities.

For Spencer, news of his award is an opportunity to attract more volunteers in the central Island unit which currently has 25 volunteers, but is always looking for more people.

To learn more or become a volunteer, please visit the Provincial Emergency Program Air website at