Are you kidding me? That was my first reaction to the latest hair-raising news concerning this province’s search and rescue capabilities, or better put, lack of them.
Again last week, it was Cougar Helicopters to the rescue, when the province needed help to medevac a man who had fallen over a cliff near the Exploits River.
Ground search and rescue is a provincial responsibility, and we’ve been told the proper protocols were followed. Officials assessed the available air support, including from the private sector. There were no Cormorants available at 9 Wing Gander due to mechanical issues. A helicopter from Greenwood, N.S., was tasked, but stood down when the province determined the Cougar rescue chopper in St. John’s, normally designated for offshore work, could respond the fastest.
Everything turned out fine. Still, we have been alerted again to how bad our search and rescue resources really are. What worries me — and should worry you — is that there was no helicopter available at the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander.
Department of National Defence officials say there are three choppers based at Gander. One was out for a regular maintenance inspection, another for an engine overhaul, and the third experienced an obviously unexpected engine failure that afternoon. Still, how can three multi-million-dollar choppers all be out of service? Shouldn’t there always be at least two ready for emergencies, not only in the event that there are two incidents, but let’s face it, the situations are often many miles offshore, and it might be necessary for more than one to handle a particular call.
It was only after Burton Winters’ tragic death that we learned the Griffon helicopters in Goose Bay were down with maintenance issues. When is someone going to realize we need more than one working helicopter to handle the conceivable cases off our coast?
I have read the comments from those I call the “accepting few” fill the online pages of various news websites. One reminded us that, “All machinery will sometime or another have mechanical troubles, it’s unavoidable!”
Another said, “Seems to me the system worked the way it was supposed to. The Cormorants were down, so they were able to go to Cougar as a backup. Why do people try to make an issue out of a non-story?”
A third, on the CBC site, said “Just heard the NDP asking for another review … YAWN!”
People, the system isn’t working. The calls for an inquiry into search and rescue resources in this province may seem tired but better now than before another life is lost. We need an immediate, complete review.
National Defence says it’s rare that all three choppers are down; we now know of at least two cases — last week and the Cougar helicopter crash a few years ago, where Gander was not equipped when needed. There should always be at least two fully-operational Cormorants at the ready on the island, and separate, fully dedicated resources in Labrador. I have no confidence Gander or Goose Bay has been provided with the necessary tools to respond to emergencies off our coast or on land when requested.
In 1982, 150,000 Newfoundlanders and Labradorians signed a petition spearheaded by the St. John’s Jaycees for the creation of a full-scale search and rescue centre in the province. I remember then-president Ken Edwards talking about how he hoped it would make a difference with Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau.
We need the same now. NDP MHA George Murphy is right. We got lucky last week, and we were fortunate a chopper was ready to respond a few days later to help rescue a crew member of a fishing vessel. There would have been a public lynching of some politicians if help had not been available.
Perhaps the lynching should happen anyway. This verbal noose doesn’t seem to be working.
Gerry Phelan is a journalist and former broadcaster. He can be reached at email@example.com.