Putting SAR to the Test

15 March 2011

Fifteen million square kilometres (10 times the area of Quebec) is a lot of territory to cover, but the Search and Rescue (SAR) crews of the Canadian Forces (CF) – including air, land and sea elements – and the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) are on call –around-the-clock, 365 days a year – to pick people out of the water, off a snowy ­mountain, from the deep woods, off a rooftop during a flood, or any of the hundreds of different predicaments in which we might find ourselves. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on National Defence ­visited Atlantic Canada in February to learn more about the delivery of SAR services and the challenges that are posed by the harsh ­environment of the North Atlantic.

“Injured” sailor being hoisted up to sick bay during simulation.

All the Canadian SAR partners play a vital role in a world-class system that answers the call of those in need. Every year, the CF respond to approximately 8,000 incidents, tasking military aircraft or ships in about 1,100 cases, saving an average of over 1,200 lives and assisting over 20,000 people. The CCG also responds to thousands of incidents, saving lives and helping thousands of people – many missions involve both the Canadian Forces and the CCG.

In Gander, we visited 103 SAR Squadron, with its complement of 92 military and civilian personnel whose appropriate motto is “Seek and Save.” 103 Sqn operates three CH-149 Cormorant helicopters – what I believe is the most capable SAR helicopter in the world – and the CF are dealing with the challenges that come with being the high-time operators of that aircraft. Crews operate in all weather conditions, day and night, and in icing conditions that would keep many other aircraft on the ground. Besides thorough briefings, and flying in the aircraft, the Committee also held public hearings on the topic of SAR.

Next stop was St. John’s where we spent time with Canadian Coast Guard leadership, toured the Regional Operations Centre and spent time on board the CCGS George R. Pearkes. We held more public hearings and heard from a wide variety of stakeholders, including Justice Robert Wells from the Cougar Helicopter Crash Inquiry.

After some weather delays, our final stop was in Halifax at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre and a visit to HMCS Charlottetown (now on duty in the Mediterranean).

Throughout, we received very informative briefings on the challenges of search and rescue, had a good look inside the workings of ships, aircraft, and equipment, and interacted with a large number of SAR service providers and users of that service. It was a consistent story of courage and commitment by those who provide the service and a mixed story of gratitude and concern by those who depend on it.

The men and women of the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard are, without a doubt, some of the bravest of Canadians. Their equipment is excellent but, as with many things, we could always use more.

The CF and CCG are assisted in the air by the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) and on the sea by the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA). Both of these volunteer organizations play a key role in augmenting the federal capability, with the CCGA performing a full 25% of Coast Guard operations. At a cost of $630 thousand per year, they deliver the equivalent of up to $250 million in services – pretty good return on investment.

Painful Examples
As brave and professional as our SAR team is, there will always be challenges, and we heard several personal and painful examples from the perspective of Atlantic Canadians. Since 1979, 193 fishers and oil field workers have been lost at sea, each one a family tragedy. Some losses were mass casualties, such as the Ocean Ranger in 1982 and the Cougar Helicopter crash in 2009.

Concerns centred on the alert status of SAR crews and the location of SAR assets. SAR aircraft are on 30-minute standby for 40 hours a week and 2 hour standby the remainder of the time. Historically, actual response times (from 103 Sqn Gander) are 19 and 51 minutes, respectively. There have been a number of cases where faster response time might have contributed to a successful outcome. There are also those who want more SAR air assets in more locations, such as St. John’s. However, the current reality is that the CF does not have the assets available (equipment or personnel) to be everywhere all the time. Decisions have to be made to get the best coverage with the resources available, and based on incident history, weather, etc.

Another reality is that the CF and CCG are only part of the SAR story. Governments, corporations, unions and individuals all have a role to play in education, awareness and practice.

Safety at Sea
The most important element of safety at sea includes personal ability to lessen risk by being prepared for unexpected turns in weather and sea conditions – having the necessary radio and survival equipment; knowing how to use that equipment in hazardous conditions; and, making use of available advancing technology in SAR alerting and location. The Committee heard that progress is being made in all those areas and that is certainly positive.

Fast Rescue Craft onboard CCGS George S. Pearkes.

When the North Atlantic wields its awesome and sudden power, putting human lives in danger, the CF and CCG will do everything humanly possible – and at very considerable risk to themselves – to save every life in danger. The sad reality is that not everyone will be saved and no one really knows how many of those 193 lost souls would still be with us with more resources or different response times.

The CF will continue to offer the best possible service, and the new Fixed Wing SAR aircraft will add to that when it comes into service. Our commitment needs to be to do everything we can to maintain the level and quality of SAR service and to improve it any way we can. No one knows that better than our SAR crews and Atlantic Canadians.

One final tip: if you’re in distress, dial *16. If you are in range of a Rescue Coordination Centre, they will answer.
LCol (ret) Laurie Hawn, the MP for Edmonton Centre, is also Parliamentary Secretary for the Minister or National Defence, Peter MacKay.
© Frontline Defence 2011