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Why does it take so long for a road to reopen after a serious crash? Here's why

Cpl. Dave Noon, of ICARS, explains why and emphasizes the vital role played in collecting the evidence at the scene of a tragedy.

Cpl. Dave Noon knows first-hand the angst drivers feel when a road is suddenly closed after a bad crash and it seems to be taking an eternity to reopen.

But given that an accident victim’s family may soon be getting a knock on their door with horrific news that will turn their lives upside down, Noon also hopes people will exercise a little patience.

It’s those vital minutes and hours in the aftermath of a serious or fatal incident that Noon and his forensic analysis colleagues need to piece together the often intricate shards of evidence to find out what led to the tragedy.

And it’s that pain-staking process that can yield answers which may, further down the line, slightly temper the grief of the loved ones left behind.

It’s that closure – not the roads – that motivates Noon and the rest of the 12-strong team at ICARS (Integrated Collision Analysis & Reconstruction Service), a 24-hour operation based out of the BC RCMP’s Surrey headquarters.

“I understand people get frustrated, but I’d ask them to consider that someone may have died and they need a voice” said Noon, who was part of the ICARS team at the scene of the recent fatal collision on Highway 99 in Richmond near the Massey Tunnel.

“There’s a need to answer questions for the families involved…They’ve gone through a hell that I can only imagine.

“In providing answers, our hope is to not only speak for the deceased, but also provide a bit of understanding of what happened, which may help (family) take one step out of the trauma they’re experiencing.”

Who are ICARS and how far do they cover?

ICARS has two teams of around six members, working four days on and four days off. They are responsible for the forensic analysis of any collision that involves serious injury or death.

They are deployed out of the BC RCMP’s Green Timbers HQ in Surrey and can be tasked anywhere in the Lower Mainland and as far north-east as Hope and Boston Bar, as far north as Sea to Sky Country and across to the Sunshine Coast.

How many accidents are they called out for?

In 2021, ICARS attended 76 fatal collisions.

In 2022, they attended 71 fatal collisions.

In February, 2023 ICARS attended eight fatal collisions, more than double from February, 2022.

When does the ICARS team get called out and who makes the call?

ICARS gets the call to attend if there is a suspicion of criminality at an accident scene and/or when someone has suffered life-altering or life-ending injuries.

“The officer in charge will do an assessment of the scene and make the call,” explained Noon. “If they believe the threshold has been crossed, they will speak to the regional duty officer who will then call us.

“We will then start to put our team together to deploy to the scene immediately.”

What does ICARS do when they arrive at an accident scene?

“The first thing we do is walk through the scene to determine if we need more resources, for example,” said Noon.

“People think we just show up and take photos. Yes, we do take photos, but they need to be perfect.

“And we’re working in all kinds of weather: rain, fog, snow, wind, so it really takes time to put photos together of the likes of tire marks, how far has someone been thrown after being struck or the final resting place of a vehicle.

“All of these things have to be measured as accurately as possible.”

ICARS officers use a scanner to survey the accident scene, which helps them laterally create a 3-D model and map of the incident area.

“We have to identify the evidence, then document the evidence. And that evidence can be very perishable depending on the weather, some of it can be blown around or covered by the snow.

“So time is very much of the essence.”

What can lead to roads being closed for a long time?

“There are many occasions when we’re already at another scene when we get the call. We have to finish that and deploy to the second scene,” explained Noon.

“Our footprint is such that, we could be in Hope and a call comes in for Whistler. We try to mitigate that by reaching out to someone who may not be working that day.”

The time taken to gather the evidence at a crash very much depends on how big the accident scene is.

“If it’s just over 10-30 metres, it can take all of 15 minutes, but if it’s 100 metres, it could take an hour to an hour and a half or more,” said Noon.

Referring to the tragic bus crash on the Coquihalla in the winter, Noon said there were so many people and resources at the scene that ICARS had to “determine as quickly as possible, what is evidence and what isn’t. We have to be very specific. It’s very challenging over large areas in challenging weather.”

How many ICARS officers are deployed to an incident?

Again, it depends on how big the scene is, said Noon, noting that the recent fatal crash near the Massey Tunnel needed three ICARS investigators on scene.

“Many hands make light work and we needed to get the highway open as soon as possible. The route and the time of day is also factored into how many people are deployed.”

What are ICARS looking for at a crash scene?

“It’s not a contained scene, such as a homicide in a house,” said Noon.

“In inclement weather, wind, rain and snow can ruin things quickly.

“For a hit and run on a pedestrian, for example, there could be a tiny piece of the vehicle, a serial number off a small piece of a mirror. That can be what we’re looking for. Even a partial serial number can help.

“If we lose that through weather or through it not being a contained scene, we may never solve that case.”

It’s usually quite clear what has happened, added Noon, be it a death or a serious injury. “But what we need to find out is why it happened.

“We have to reconstruct the scene to find out what happened. We often work it backwards.

“If it’s quite evident that it’s going to be a criminal investigation, we will have to reposition the vehicles to the position of impact. That helps the court understand what took place.”

Worst scenes attended

Given the nature of their business, the ICARS members are often exposed to the graphic aftermath of a fatal accident.

“If someone has died, their body will remain there until we attend,” said Noon.

“The body helps provide a lot of evidence and tells a story of what happened. There is a significant amount physical trauma that our team members are exposed to.”

Noon was among the ICARS teams that attended the recent tragic scenes of the three young hockey players that died in North Surrey, the two cyclists who perished north of Whistler and the Abbotsford hit and run, where a man was struck and then died alone on the side of the road.

“Sometimes people make poor choices that results in someone’s death. It’s our job to make sure those people are accountable.”