Shaming those who need to be rescued in B.C. backcountry is toxic, dangerous: SAR volunteer


VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) — A search and rescue volunteer is speaking out against people who are “shaming” and “blaming” a young woman who died while snowshoeing in the Sea-to-Sky backcountry, saying these comments discourage people from calling for help when they need it.

Nikki Donnelly, a 21-year-old from Toronto, was found dead Friday by crews who had been searching for her since Thursday afternoon. The last thing she did was call her boyfriend in Ontario who alerted search crews after the cell phone connection was lost.

Michael Coyle with Coquitlam SAR says comments made on social media criticizing Donnelly’s decision to call her boyfriend instead of 911 are indicative of a troubling trend.

“It seems to me that it’s a constant thread that when someone gets rescued, especially in the local mountains, there’s a kind of commentary about how stupid they are and I don’t understand why but people feel like they are free to criticize the person’s decisions,” he says.

“In this case, the woman passed away, but even when people come back alive people tend to criticize them I think it’s even worse when someone’s dead.”

Coyle tells NEWS 1130 why he took to Twitter to warn against the consequences of this kind of commentary.

“When the public criticism comes in sometimes ventures into vitriol and even has a kind of violent sense to it. This does nothing to help or teach anybody anything. All it teaches people is that if they’re ever in that same situation, they’re going to be at the receiving end of the same kind of abuse,” he explains.

“The backlash on social media has been the most toxic. It’s a common occurrence for people to blame the victim. I still have a hard time dealing with the hatred and vitriol people express in cases like this,” he tweeted. “Nobody starts their day thinking they’re going to die.”

In Coyle’s experience, people tend to put off calling for help while they try to find their way back to a trail, or otherwise get themselves out of danger.

“They try harder to not need rescue but that’s when the person starts to make panicky decisions, and they’re still doggedly trying not to call search and rescue because they don’t want that consequence. What happens when people do that is search and rescue job is harder, the call starts later in the day,” he says.

“I think if we stopped shaming victims we could get people to call a little earlier, which makes our job easier.”

He wants people to know that getting lost, overwhelmed, or being caught out unprepared is not a “moral failure,” and that rescue crews will come to anyone’s aid without judgment.

“The public seems to think that they’re bad people because they’re endangering search and rescue, and it’s like — we’re going up by choice, and we’re doing it very safely. Don’t not call for help because you think you’re going to endanger us, because we’re all out there by choice.”

In his Twitter thread he admits he does not know what went through Donnelly’s mind — no one does.

“I have no idea of her state of mind. I just want some people to understand why I feel so strongly that public shaming is not just toxic but harmful to good SAR outcomes,” he wrote.

“We have to avoid creating reluctance to call for help when needed.”

Dehydration, fear, and hunger can all impact people’s decision-making, according to Coyle who encourages any would-be commentators to have compassion.

“There are huge effects on your cognitive abilities. So, your decision-making processes become really quite spotty.”

“It’s easy to criticize someone’s decision to call a boyfriend or a friend or to text, a family. But there’s a lot of emotions going through those people’s minds at that time about what to do.”

Coyle points out that the number of rescues in British Columbia each year is larger than the combined total for the rest of the country.

“It’s not just because of the number of people who go in the backcountry, it’s because of our terrain, it’s because of the tree cover, it’s because of the snow, and all the hazards that come with mountains,” he explains.

“British Columbia is one of the most dangerous places in Canada to go into the backcountry, and I don’t think we as locals even realize how hazardous it is. In the winter, everything gets harder because the days are shorter. The trail underneath the snow, it’s difficult to find.”

Donnelly is the fifth person to die in the Sea to Sky backcountry since Dec. 29. In a news release Squamish RCMP Sgt. Sascha Banks implored anyone who needs help to call 911, and anyone venturing out to be cautious.

“We have seen far too much tragedy already in the Sea to Sky Corridor this year,” Banks wrote.

“Please know this: if you are in the backcountry and need help call 911, ourselves and our very experienced search teams will do everything we can to find you.”

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