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Auditor General finds Canada’s search and rescue capabilities barely up to snuff

FEDERAL (Canadian OH&S News)


FEDERAL (Canadian OH&S News)

Protections for those that work the waters around Canada are not up to snuff, the country’s auditor general found, though the federal government has pledged to address the shortfalls.

The auditor general’s report found that though the country’s search and rescue (SAR) activities “have met established minimum standards of readiness to respond when people in distress need assistance,” the equipment available to rescue crews is getting on in age and there are concerns over the number of trained personnel that will be available in the future.

According to the report, released April 30, “significant improvements are needed if the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard are to continue to adequately respond and provide the necessary personnel, equipment and information systems to deliver SAR activities effectively.”

Auditor General of Canada Michael Ferguston said in a statment that “moving forward, federal partners need to work with each other and with the provinces and territories to better co-ordinate search and rescue services at the national level.”

There are ongoing personnel shortages within the Royal Canadian Air Force, the coast guard has seen challenges with recruiting and both organizations have had difficulty training search and rescuers.

This is due to SAR technicians being unavailable for duty while updating their qualifications — which must be done frequently — as well as a shortage in aircraft available to train recruits, meaning existing crews must take on a heavier workload. Though recommendations to increase the number of aircraft available had been approved by the air force, it never happened, the report noted.

The coast guard has also encountered difficulties training enough bilingual rescue co-ordinators, and for almost 15 years has had difficulty maintaining a full complement of marine co-ordinators.

Canada’s SAR fleet is showing its age, and many of the craft it relies on are either nearing the end of their useful lives or are not suitable for rescue operations at all. The report points to the Griffon helicopter, used in Trenton, Ont. as a replacement for its Cormorant fleet, which was relocated in 2005.

“The helicopter is too small for certain SAR missions and cannot reach remote sites in northern Ontario and Quebec without refuelling,” the report said, noting that the helicopter has been unable to take on certain missions and is not suitable for all SAR needs.

Work to replace the two aircraft in use, the Hercules and Buffalo, has been ongoing for more than a decade, the report found, and replacements were delayed from 2007 to 2017. Due to the expensive maintenance on the Buffalo planes, there were 119 occasions when they were not available for a mission.

Pressingly, the auditor also found that the information management system used by the country’s SAR co-ordinators was nearing its breaking point, and a replacement was not expected for another two years at the earliest. A new SAR Mission Management System was approved in 2012 by the defence department, which has been working with Fisheries and Oceans Canada to provide better support for the current system and would review its processes to ensure SAR could continue if the current system fails.

The Department of National Defence, the air force and the coast guard agreed with all of these issues and committed to resolving them.

On May 2, Peter MacKay, minister of national defence and lead minister for SAR activities, announced that a review would be conducted every four years with input from the coast guard, Parks Canada, the air force, Public Safety Canada, provincial and territorial governments and SAR volunteers.

Additionally, $16 million is being earmarked for the development of satellite-aided SAR projects, $2 million to renovate the Halifax Joint Resource Co-ordination Centre, as well as a revamp of the beacon registration and information website.

The Department of National Defence will be re-allocating funds currently dedicated to supporting its Challenger fleet — used by the air force as VIP transport — “to frontline priorities that include search and rescue as a no-fail mission for the Canadian Forces.”

The same day the federal government made the announcement, Newfoundland and Labrador Premier Kathy Dunderdale said in a release that the new measures fell short of what was called for in the auditor general’s report.

“There are very clear recommendations outlined in the federal auditor general’s report, recommendations that can be acted upon immediately,” she said in a news release, noting that the province has raised concerns in the past regarding the reliability of SAR operations in the Atlantic. “I continue to call on the federal government to immediately act to address these recommendations and provide us with a clear timeline of when we can expect these recommendations to be completed.”

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