Announcement closely follows release of critical federal AG report
A Canadian Forces Cormorant helicopter takes off from the Health Sciences Centre in St. John’s. — Telegram file photo
Defence Minister Peter MacKay is hoping measures announced Thursday will help “build on what is one of the best search and rescue (SAR) systems in the world,” while others suggest the government’s plans fall short of what’s needed.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa, MacKay announced several measures to improve SAR capabilities. A quadrennial review will take place and SAR postures will be shifted seasonally to correspond with increased needs based on the assessment of regional commanders.
Satellite-aided SAR will receive $16.2 million to improve real-time situational awareness and vessel tracking, and a policy change will be implemented with respect to how SAR aircraft are tracked, requiring pilots to provide updates when the operational status of an aircraft changes.
MacKay also announced im-provements to the website for beacon registration and $2 million of work to complete renovations at the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax.
MacKay’s announcement came two days after the release of the federal auditor general’s report on the Canadian SAR system. The report identified several areas where improvements are needed.
“This is not the be all and end all, but there is more in the pipeline, including more aircraft, and I remind you that it’s a shared responsibility,” said the minister, who spoke with The Telegram early Thursday evening.
“That is to say that the responsibility for ground search and rescue, for example, rests with the province. Part of what we announced today deals specifically with the need for greater co-ordination with all of the stakeholders, and that involves this quadrennial review, which will be a very deep dive into all of the requirements that will be needed in the future to improve search and rescue.”
MacKay said the new measures will improve response times and tracking, enhance the capability of satellite-aided SAR and improve beacon registration to locate vessels faster.
Response times and the tracking of SAR aircraft were central to the case of Makkovik teen Burton Winters, whose body was found Feb. 1, 2012, three days after he went missing.
The handling of Burton’s rescue sparked outrage in the province.
MacKay said the measures announced Thursday were not inspired by any one matter.
“There’s a constant need to review search and rescue capabilities. These announcements today are not in response to any one incident or any one report from the auditor general. This is work that has been underway for months, if not years.”
Clarence Peddle, a retired SAR co-ordinator who lives in St. John’s, believes the auditor general report should not be interpreted as the final word on what is needed for SAR. He said a public inquiry on SAR is still necessary and that the proposed quadrennial review falls short of what an inquiry would offer.
“The devil will be in the details, but basically what I envision here is that they will be conducting an internal, very opaque self-examination as opposed to any type of transparent exercise,” said Peddle, who would prefer to see a cross-country consultation take place.
He was underwhelmed by the details of Thursday’s announcement by the defence minister.
“I don’t want to say, ‘much ado about nothing,’ because I don’t want to trivialize what they said there, but if I look at the six initiatives, I don’t really see those initiatives addressing many of the concerns that the auditor general brought out and ... (what) the people of Newfoundland and Labrador, in particular, have been bringing out for many years.”
MacKay is not receptive to the idea of holding a public inquiry on SAR.
“A public inquiry is not going to allow the action that is required,” he said. “A quadrennial review is going to bring together all of the stakeholders, looking in specific detail at how we can improve such things as response times, locations of assets, (and) training schedules. This is meant very much as a action-oriented review, and locking it down (for every four years) will ensure everyone involved in search and rescue is given assurances that there is a forum to voice their concerns, and that includes the ground search and rescue responsibility at the provincial level, in some cases the private sector involvement, and the volunteer base.”
Liberal MP Scott Simms, whose riding includes the base for 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander, said it is funny government announced a plan to offer seasonal flexibility for SAR posture shifts given MacKay’s previous request in 2010 for a Cormorant helicopter to pick him up in rural Newfoundland and fly him to Gander.
“Gander already does that,” he said. “As a matter of fact, they even did it for him. I have the email exchange when he took his vacation on the Gander River. They ordered Gander to pick him up at 8 a.m. or before, because he had a flight to catch in Gander at 8 a.m. So not only did they shift for seasonal elements, such as the seal hunt or whatever may be or night training, but they also shifted to accommodate his vacation.”
Both Simms and Peddle said that regional commanders already have the power to shift SAR posture to reflect seasonal demand.
“(MacKay) is pretending like it’s a new thing when it’s not new at all,” said Simms.
“They’ve had flexible hours for as long as I worked in search and rescue for high-risk fisheries,” added Peddle, who also believes the two-hour reaction-time in place outside of regular posture hours is too high and costing lives.
“What they’re talking about doing here, instead of being on the 30-minute standby from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., they might be on 30-minute standby from say 10 a.m. until 6 p.m. But basically what you’re doing is robbing Peter to pay Paul where in fact what they should be looking at is providing full, 7-24, 30-minute reaction-time standby.”
Simms also wonders how much new money will be allocated to the mission management system to handle the improvements announced by MacKay.
“I still suspect they’re going to use Google Maps for the most part,” said Simms.
As for the quadrennial review, Simms wonders why it cannot occur on an annual basis. He added Thursday’s announcement is short on equipment and that the process to replace fixed-wing aircraft needs to be fast-tracked. Efforts to replace those aircraft stretch back to the days of Liberal majorities in the early millennium.
On the matter of how aircraft will report operational status, Peddle said changing the procedure from once-a-day to requiring a followup if the status changes is an obvious move.
“If they haven’t been doing that all along, then there’s obviously something seriously wrong,” he said. “In coast guard, when I was with search and rescue back in 1980, we were following that procedure then.”
In the Burton Winters case, Peddle points out that JRCC was not aware of the operational status of the Griffon helicopters in Goose Bay and that it learned by accident that an Aurora aircraft was in the area.
Simms believes the $2 million invested in the Halifax JRCC should have gone to the now-closed Marine Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John’s.
Marine sub-centre under DFO
Asked if the federal government will consider reversing the decision to close the St. John’s sub-centre, Mac-Kay noted that matter falls under the jurisdiction of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans.
NDP defence critic and St. John’s East MP Jack Harris said Thursday’s announcement from MacKay had to be considered in the context of the auditor general’s report, which he considers to be a damaging document for the minister and the Conservative government. Particularly, Harris said, given that the government speaks of SAR as a major priority.
“They keep saying that, yet the auditor general, the main thrust of his complaints are not dealt with by what the minister had to say today. These are certain tweaks that are being put in place, but they don’t amount to any substantial fix for the problems that search and rescue have.”
While Harris believes the investments in satellites will be beneficial, government still needs to address issues with recruitment of pilots and SAR co-ordinators and set response times that relate to needs and not the availability of resources.
He also wonders what the quadrennial review will amount to, given reviews are supposed to take place on an ongoing basis with SAR.
MacKay says the review will begin “as soon as possible,” emphasizing it is not months away.