System failure

Gerry Phelan
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I wonder how the Canadian Forces honchos who oversee search and rescue decisions are sleeping these days.

Do they talk aloud to themselves, questioning their response to incidents like the recent case in Labrador? In the quiet of their bedrooms, do they yell at their invisible political masters who have tied their hands and resources? Do they care about the real and perceived loss of life, not because of the efforts of rescue crews but because they were never directed to help in the first place? Do they wonder about what’s next?

The reality is, we no longer trust search and rescue. I’m not talking about the pilots and search and rescue technicians. They risk life and limb to save others. But it is tough to have faith in decision-makers who choose — in the name of efficiency — to close important local resources they refer to as call centres; who allow training missions or political trips to take scarce resources out of service; who seem not to sense the need to have rescue choppers ready and in flying condition 24/7 on the nearest piece of land to our far north and vast Atlantic.

I knew the jig was up the week before last, late on a Friday afternoon in Halifax, when the military paraded out a group of higher-ups to go before the cameras and give excuses for their lack of participation in the Makkovik incident. That began a series of ass-covering events culminating in a news conference last Wednesday in St. John’s, which provided fuel for more questions than answers.

The whole search and rescue system needs revamping, not cuts, and if that happens it will be because of a young boy who showed more courage and determination than those who are paid to do so.

The base in Goose Bay has a stated purpose, secondary though it may be, as a search and rescue platform, providing standby for national search and rescue operations. It is tough to fathom that one chopper was out for long-term maintenance and the second needed unexpected repairs.

Why wasn’t there a backup? Why isn’t there a Cormorant permanently stationed at Goose Bay?  Not that the Goose Bay Griffons are slouches. Choppers and crew from Goose Bay were involved last year in Operation JAGUAR, Canada’s contribution of military aviation and search and rescue capability to aid the Jamaica Defence Force. We sent three CH-146 Griffon utility tactical transport helicopters with aircrews and support personnel, including five search and rescue teams.

The military says the teams conducted training activities to ensure the long-term availability of search and rescue aircrew for operations in Canada. They deployed in August and returned to Canada in late November. We have a history of co-operation with Jamaica, like other countries, and that is needed and welcome. But let’s not forget our own needs.

 In a week when we remember the victims of the Ocean Ranger disaster, at a time when the Cougar helicopter crash remains cemented in our memories, it is insane that we have to worry that our government doesn’t care enough to ensure our protection in time of emergency.

The Marine Rescue Sub-Centre has little breathing time left, but it is not too late to abort the decision to close it. Let’s also use the occasion to push for more resources, including for Labrador, and perhaps some good will come out of something that should never have happened.

The motto at 5 Wing Goose Bay is “SULIAKAKATIGeJUT,” which means “working together” in Inuktitut. 

It’s time. 

Gerry Phelan is a journalist and

former broadcaster. He can be reached at

Organizations: Canadian Forces, Goose Bay Griffons, JAGUAR

Geographic location: Labrador, Goose Bay, Canada Halifax Makkovik Jamaica Inuktitut

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Recent comments

  • MBC
    February 18, 2012 - 08:03

    Isn't the NL Government responsible for ground rescue? Why aren't you writing about the lack of service in the case of the Winters boy? Also how did the community get involved in jumping on their snowmobilies and searching for Burton Winters?

  • Herb Morrison
    February 17, 2012 - 08:59

    Effectively Said, Mr. Phelan