On the fifth and final night of the Wilderness Operations and Outdoor Skills Training Course in the Yukon, Cst. John Gillis built himself a shelter and hunkered down for a cold night. It was -29 C before wind chill, but the instructors leading the course wanted to make sure their officers were prepared to face any number of outdoor challenges.
"We have vast areas of wilderness and police some isolated places with extreme weather," says Gillis, a RCMP officer in Whitehorse, Yukon. "We frequently respond to calls in areas that are only accessible by boat, ATV, snowmobile or by air. You can find yourself a long way from help if something goes wrong."
That's why Gillis decided to take the Wilderness Operations course this past March. The six-day course teaches a range of useful skills for officers working in the North, including cold weather rescue techniques, navigation and survival skills. The course also included a presentation by hypothermia expert Gordon Giesbrecht.
The goal is to prepare officers so they can avoid emergency survival situations.
"One thing we drill into officers is that no member in the Yukon should be going on duty without the ability to start a fire," says RCMP Cpl. Cam Long, the lead instructor for the course. "We teach officers how to avoid getting in a situation they're not prepared for. I truly believe these skills could save a member's life."
In the Yukon, the majority of police deaths have occurred due to the environment — mostly cold weather and water. Because of this, Long and Sgt. Glenn Ramsay, who is in charge of RCMP training for the territory, developed the wilderness skills course in 2013, drawing from best practices in other jurisdictions.
Now in its fourth year, the program is available to all RCMP officers in the Yukon.
"Officers could be using these skills daily, for example if they go to remote accident scenes, if they're searching for overdue hunters, or if they respond to calls on or near water," says Ramsay. "Anytime, anywhere, anything can happen, so we want our police officers to be prepared."