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SAR discussion


Dear editor, Until recently, I served as an officer in the Canadian Forces and as a search and rescue helicopter pilot. In my final post, I was privileged to command 103 Search and Rescue Squadron. My experiences over the years have afforded me numerous opportunities to witness heroic action where individuals put themselves in harm’s way “that others may live.” Sadly, I have also experienced considerable tragedy where incidents did not have positive outcomes.

Along the way I have also lost a number of close friends in a variety of helicopter accidents, including one aboard Cougar 491.  Today, readers may best recognize me as the notorious pilot who was “happy” to hoist National Defence Minister Peter MacKay from a cabin on the Gander River.

Those who know me will agree that search and rescue is my passion and it will come as no surprise to them that I offer this letter simply to balance the ongoing debate centred on how to improve the SAR system.  Before I do this, I must mention that as a former “Outcast” (103 Squadron call-sign), it is disheartening to hear some of the politically charged rhetoric that would suggest 103 Squadron responds with anything less than 100 per cent effort when a distress call comes in. Every Outcast goes above and beyond the call of duty when reacting to all emergency situations and the time of day or week has no effect on crew urgency.  A 30-minute (daytime)/two-hour (off hours) posture provides unfair representation of the actual reaction times that SAR crews routinely achieve.  For 103 Squadron, a typical response from the flight line averages 19 minutes or less, while a quiet hour response usually takes just under an hour.

It would be great if all it took to launch a SAR aircraft was to turn a key to start an engine and then race down a highway, but this is not the case.  There are important factors to consider each time, such as en route weather conditions, air traffic control obligations and other specific mission requirements.  With an area of responsibility the size of Canada’s that encompasses many millions of square kilometres, extends halfway across the Atlantic Ocean and as far north as the pole, and given the fact that RCAF crews train for every possible scenario should an incident occur on water or over land, during daylight conditions or at night, an apples-to-apples comparison of capability with any other organization the world over would show that RCAF squadrons are in a league of their own.

While it may sound logical that improving SAR services should be as simple as having crews become airborne faster, when you consider that Canada only has five primary SAR squadrons where typical transits from the main operating base will cover hundreds or thousands of miles, the difference between a 19-minute launch versus one that takes closer to an hour has no influence on mission success in more than 99 per cent of cases — a statistic that is little consolation to the less than one per cent, leaving unanswerable questions of “What if?”

An unemotional review of the history of how our system was conceived, the challenges a country this size faces and the jurisdictions involved would illustrate how complex Canada’s national system actually is. All factors considered, it would become clear that there are more important issues to address prior to any focus on RCAF crew reaction times. As one example, recent attrition trends have threatened the capacity of some squadrons to such an extent that gaps in coverage have been mitigated by prolonged augmentation efforts from other units and thanks to the unwavering dedication of individuals.

Canadian requirements have evolved since 1947 when the federal cabinet first assigned the RCAF with its original SAR mandate.  Back then, our international obligation was to provide long-range patrol aircraft capable of prosecuting extensive searches at the far extremes of our area of responsibility and to provide facilities to co-ordinate such activities.  Only those incidents involving airplanes or distress cases that occurred on waters of federal jurisdiction (oceans and the Great Lakes) were considered at that time.  Helicopter rescue was only conceptual back then owing to the infancy of design but now, the potential for rescue from a helicopter has increased tremendously.  Not surprisingly, so too has expectation.  And with this evolution, there are new pressures to contend with, such as an implied obligation for 103 Squadron helicopters to remain postured on the island in support of offshore activities, not to mention the long-standing support that the RCAF has provided to Newfoundland and Labrador for cases that fall under provincial jurisdiction.  These include support to ground SAR cases, which encompass all other forms of distress that are not automatically classified as aeronautical or maritime distress as well as humanitarian efforts such as hospital-to-hospital patient transfers.  Recognizing that Newfoundland and Labrador has unique geographic, meteorological and accessibility challenges, the number of cases for which the RCAF provides supplemental support outside of its federal mandate far exceeds all other provinces.  Most have dedicated resources assigned o meet their specific provincial obligations.

Moving forward, one of the biggest challenges is that of education. Too few people understand the complexity of Canada’s national SAR system, including those who find themselves in responsible positions facing very difficult questions.  More often than not, these tough questions only surface in the aftermath of something tragic and when this happens, any attempt to explain the issues at that time is too easily construed as an excuse rather than an explanation and this risks offence to grieving families. This is why it is important to take advantage of every opportunity to educate responsible officials and the general public, because jurisdiction should not slow a response to a person in need. Such an opportunity could happen to present itself coincident with a regularly scheduled training event within a local training area.

Stephen Reid

Gander, NL

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