The completion of the new hangar at St. John’s International Airport in the coming weeks will give Cougar Helicopters its own search and rescue (SAR) facility and provide a home for a 24-7 SAR helicopter service for offshore Eastern Newfoundland.
When the hangar is done, Cougar will have a wheels-up response time of 20 minutes at any time, day or night.
While an achievement for the company and offshore operators, the response time places the private SAR service a cut above the public service being offered by the federal Department of Defence — the latter with a response time known to be slower on evenings and weekends.
Provincial and federal representatives from this province have expressed concerns about the development of a two-tier SAR system for the offshore, as a result of a lack of investment into public SAR resources by the federal government.
Through an access to information request, The Telegram obtained a copy of a letter from March 30, 2010, addressed to Minister of National Defence Peter MacKay and written by then-provincial Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Dave Denine .
“Since the beginning of 2010, you have been consistent in your message that the federal government currently lacks the capacity to increase SAR response capability in N.L. due to a lack of personnel and hardware,” it states.
“Upon the recommendation of Justice Robert Wells, Commissioner of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, offshore oil operators in N.L. have already undertaken efforts to increase the capability of Cougar Helicopters to deliver SAR service to the offshore industry. While this is an important step, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador is not only concerned with SAR response to emergencies related to offshore oil operations. The province’s fish harvesters, who are active off all coasts of N.L., deserve to have the benefit of the same response time that will be made available to offshore workers.
“As I’m sure you will agree, this is not an issue which can be addressed through private sector SAR delivery.”
The Department of Intergovernmental Affairs was contacted about the letter Thursday morning. The Telegram was told current minister, Nick McGrath, would not be available prior to deadline.
Similarly, no response was received from the federal government to a request for an interview relating to search and rescue offshore Newfoundland and Labrador.
A Department of Defence spokesman contacted The Telegram by email Friday morning. He noted the government's SAR teams "often launch much sooner than the mandated times" and the squadron in Gander is particularly accomplished on this front. During daytime/"peak" hours, the Gander squadron has averaged a 19.5 minute wheels-up reaction time — half a minute better than any private SAR offering.
While the same could not be said of periods outside of peak hours, where the response is about 50 minutes, the department spokesman noted the government SAR response also has years of study and experience to draw upon in relation to work over the North Atlantic.
"Canadians are fortunate to have one of the most effective SAR systems in the world," he stated.
Cougar has provided SAR response
Meanwhile, Cougar Helicopters says its service has been developed for the oil and gas industry contractors, but has confirmed it has responded to calls from Halifax-based SAR co-ordinators.
“Joint Rescue and Coordination Centre based in Nova Scotia have in the past tasked Cougar to respond to an emergency when 103 Gander was not available. In a life or death situation and if Cougar was not performing services for its customers in the oil and gas industry, in other words based on availability, Cougar Helicopters has responded,” a spokeswoman stated.
NDP MP for St. John’s South-Mount Pearl, Ryan Cleary, publicly raised a red flag on the issue of a potential double-standard for SAR services Dec. 7 in the House of Commons.
“I can tell you this, Mr. Speaker, the survival time of an offshore oil worker in the North Atlantic is the same as the survival time for a fishermen,” he said. “There should be one uniform search and rescue response for the offshore.”
Cleary said Thursday his comments were prompted by the back and forth regarding Defence Minister Peter MacKay’s use of a SAR helicopter out of Gander, following vacation time spent fishing on the Gander river.
“I thought that this is the point that people were missing,” he said. “This was the real issue that was being overlooked ... the response times that I don’t think are good enough.”
Cleary has commended the efforts by Cougar and the offshore oil operators to improve search and rescue response. He said the federal government now has to follow suit.
The SAR offering by Cougar for the offshore comes in response to the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, wherein Justice Robert Wells found, early in his work, a one-hour wheels-up time for helicopters involved in SAR response should be improved.