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Canada’s Search and Rescue: Putting Out a Mayday

The National Post - May 13, 2013

By Colin Kenny

If Defence Minister Peter MacKay sometimes appears to be sleepwalking when addressing problems within Canada’s military infrastructure, I can assure you he has been incredibly active.

MacKay has been busy perfecting a strategy called “the Nod-and-Dodge Defence.” It has nothing to do with defending the country and everything to do with defending himself.

The minister’s black belt mastery of Nod-and-Dodge was front and centre last week as he defended the federal government’s continued neglect of Canada’s search and rescue capacity.

Effective search and rescue (SAR) is vital in a country with a huge expanse of rough, remote terrain and frigid waters. About 20,000 people a year in Canada depend on quick and capable responses – from foundering fishermen to lost children, from downed pilots to missing boaters to avalanche survivors.

Canada’s search and rescue workers are a brave bunch, hamstrung by chronic underfunding and a military that treats SAR like a neglected child. Last week Auditor General Michael Ferguson released a report calling for “significant improvements” to the capabilities of the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard to respond to search-and-rescue emergencies, citing personnel shortages, inadequate training, outdated equipment and flawed information systems.

The report was a clear embarrassment to the government, but it made a quick exit from the news cycle thanks to Nod-and-Dodge.

The nodding is the easy part. Governments have recognized that fighting back against criticisms from reputable sources like the auditor general only keeps the story in the news. So the idea is to agree that the criticism is valid and make vague promises to do something, so the story goes away.

In this nodding process, Ferguson actually aids and abets. In the SAR report, each time the auditor general found a severe deficiency in SAR capacity, he brought it to the attention of the Canadian Forces, or Fisheries and Oceans Canada, or Transport Canada, or whichever other federal agency was responsible within the complex Canadian SAR matrix.

In every case, military and departmental bureaucrats responded in lock step: they nodded. They agreed ­– as though saluting in unison – to fix the problems that he had identified.

The trick is that without any financial commitment from the government to make these fixes (and there was none), all this agreeing is meaningless. It costs money to hire and train enough people to assure quick and effective rescues, to replace outdated equipment, to fix broken communications systems. Without firm financial commitments, a nod is as good as a wink.

Here is just one example cited in the report of how bureaucracies “address” problems in the absence of any demonstration of urgency on the part of governments to fix the problem.

Ferguson notes that in 1976 – that’s thirty-seven years ago – the federal government “identified the need for a national policy framework for SAR and restated this need a number of times over the years, including [after] the Ocean Ranger marine disaster.”

Despite the commitments of many governments since then, the auditor general found “there is no such policy nor an overall federal policy, planning framework, clear statement of expectations for federal SAR services, or ability to measure overall SAR effectiveness.”

So of what possible use is it for all these bureaucrats to say they intend to fix things, without a government announcement that new funding will be forthcoming to do that? Absolutely none.

After all this nodding, MacKay took the issue to stage 2:  a masterful dodge. He called a press conference Friday, at which he announced a six-point plan to rehabilitate Canada’s SAR system. The problem was that the six points did almost nothing to address the most serious charges in the auditor-general’s report.

One of the six points was “the new operations and activities” that will be undertaken by the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre in Halifax to complement SAR coordinating at two other centres in Trenton, Ontario, and Victoria, B.C. The truth is that focusing on Halifax and Trenton was a money-saving move that involved the closing of two important centres in Quebec City and St. John’s, leaving Newfoundlanders with inferior service and Quebeckers without a dedicated French-language service.

(It is worth noting that the government also closed the Kitsilano Coast Guard Station in Vancouver, the busiest station in Canada in terms of annual distress calls.)

The minister’s other five points at the press conference were almost frivolous compared to the huge problems confronting Canada’s search-and-rescue system, some of which were identified in Ferguson’s report, but some of which weren’t.

Ferguson pointed out that both the Canadian Armed Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard have “staffing and training problems [that] are impacting the sustainability of SAR operations.” In fact these organizations pretend that they are fully staffed, but because they don’t make allowances for people being away for training, illness vacations or parental leave, they are chronically understaffed.

Ferguson observed that the Royal Canadian Air Force’s “continued use of older airplanes that require extensive maintenance and of helicopters that are either insufficient in number or less capable of responding to incidents.” The Air Force uses outdated Hercules C-130H aircraft for search and rescue, saving its new C-130J Hercules for tactical military airlift. Again, search-and-rescue is treated as a lesser priority, which is ridiculous for a government with an alleged “Canada First” defence and security policy. Buying more C-130Js would provide search-and-rescue with much superior aircraft, save on huge maintenance costs, and provide less expensive replacement parts with one common supply line.

The RCAF does have 14 very capable Cormorant helicopters, but the military decided to save money on rustproofing when they were purchased so half of them are usually in maintenance. The Cormorants originally flew out of bases on the Atlantic, Pacific and Great Lakes, but because of their high maintenance needs they are now consolidated on the east and west coasts. That leaves pilots flying the Great Lakes and the massive expanse of Northern Canada making do with smaller Griffon helicopters, which have less range and lift capacity and were never designed for search and rescue. Using them can make rescues much more problematic for both the people trying to rescue and those who are desperate to be rescued.

Ferguson says, “the information management system used to manage search and rescue cases does not adequately support operational requirements and is near its breaking point.”  The truth, as I have pointed out in the past, is that the computer system that coordinates SAR distress responses is fragile and nearing obsolescence.

Particularly ludicrous is the fact – which Ferguson did not mention – that there is no single Canadian organization responsible for search-and-rescue coordination. The oceans are the primary responsibility of the RCAF. The land is the primary responsibility of the provinces. There is occasional overlap, but there have been too many examples of Canadian Armed Forces commanders  holding back aircraft during one emergency on land or ice – just in case another later emergency might crop up over water. That is what happened in the tragic case of 14-year-old Burton Winters, an Inuit boy who froze to death in a Labrador blizzard last year. There are two points to made here. The first is that it is ridiculous that there are split jurisdictions in the life-and-death world of search-and-rescue. The second is that if decision-makers are holding back on the use of aircraft in the case of a demonstrated emergency, you know there are not enough aircraft.

Search-and-rescue is in terrible shape in Canada, a country with more than 18 million square kilometers of land and water in which too many people don’t get the emergency assistance they need.

If the system is going to get fixed, it’s going to cost quite a bit of money. The only money the minister mentioned was a modest investment in a satellite surveillance system that will supposedly take the search out of search-and-rescue, but won’t be up and running for many years to come and won’t be fully effective until everyone who might need rescuing is carrying a transponder. That’s a long way off, and won’t do anything to fix what’s broken now.

This week, MacKay is talking about transforming the nine Cormorant helicopters Canada bought from Washington for spare parts – helicopters intended to carry President Obama comfortably on short journeys – into operational search-and-rescue aircraft. A helicopter meant for safe little jaunts for a president doesn’t have the equipment required for successful search-and-rescue missions. Equipping them to be reliable operational helicopters would not only be problematic and expensive, it would rob the military of the spare parts it needs to replenish its existing fleet.

This is pipe dream. More nodding, more dodging, more obfuscation. Sleight-of-hand may be routine in the House of Commons, but it’s badly out of place when lives are on the line.

[Colin Kenny is former chair of the Senate Committee for National Security and Defence.]