Defence Minister Peter MacKay announced new money and policies for Canada's search and rescue system today, including millions of dollars for satellites and a review of the system that is to be done every four years.
MacKay outlined a set of measures at a news conference in Ottawa and they come just two days after Auditor General Michael Ferguson's spring report raised serious concerns about the sustainability of the search and rescue system. The defence minister said the changes announced have been in the works for seven months and aren't in direct response to the report.
MacKay said the government is investing $4.7 million in an options analysis for a new medium-orbit satellite system and $11.5 in the existing low-orbit system to ensure it remains effective.
"I believe these critical investments will save lives," said MacKay.
Kerry-Lynne Findlay, associate defence minister, was also at the announcement and said the satellites will be a "game-changer" for search and rescue operations. They will reduce the amount of time it takes to detect and locate a distress signal to five minutes from one hour, she said. The options analysis contract has been awarded to Com Dev Canada in Ottawa.
The new satellites will be part of an international rescue distress system that helps detect and locate emergency beacons. MacKay said the satellites will help take the "search" out of search and rescue.
MacKay also announced that a comprehensive review of the search and rescue system will be done every four years to ensure that equipment and personnel are up to date, and stationed where they need to be. The last time a review was done was in 2008. MacKay said that with a changing population, the reviews should be done on a regular basis. The next one will be undertaken immediately, he said.
New website for mariners
The defence minister also announced a new website for mariners to use to register their emergency beacons. He called it a "one-stop shop" that will allow for more effective responses to people in need.
The defence minister also issued two policy changes on Thursday. Rescue squadrons currently inform joint rescue co-ordination centres once per day about the availability of their aircraft and crew. If something happens later in the day to limit their state of readiness, no call has to be made and MacKay said this can create a "lapse in critical information."
The new directive stipulates that any change in readiness must be reported immediately to joint co-ordination centres so they have a "real-time" view of what assets are available to help those in need.
"In turn, this practical but important shift carries the real potential of saving lives," MacKay said.
Another measure he announced is aimed at increasing the flexibility for mandatory response times for air force rescue squadrons.
Currently, between the hours of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday, they are supposed to depart within 30 minutes, and within two hours outside of those hours. MacKay wants to see some flexibility so the hours can be adjusted to account for busy traffic on the water, during lobster season for example in Atlantic Canada. He is directing base commanders to shift those hours during peak times.
The Canadian Coast Guard's reaction time standard is 30 minutes, seven days a week, 24 hours a day and it does modify its operations in times of anticipated need, such as busy fishing seasons. MacKay's directive applies to the air force.
Ferguson's audit found that overall, search and rescue activities have met minimum standards of readiness to respond to calls for help, but he said there are big risks to that readiness. Ferguson said aging equipment and staff shortages are threatening the future quality of the services provided by the coast guard and air force.
New aircraft needed
His audit said that in 2012 the Canadian Forces reviewed its state of readiness and concluded that shifting the current 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. schedule by an hour or more could improve coverage during busy periods.
The audit found that search and rescue region commanders do modify the schedule for heavier traffic times such as the opening of fishing season.
MacKay said the decision to tell commanders to use more flexibility in the response time standards was considered for several months. "This is an evolution of improvement that we're seeing now," said MacKay.
No issues were raised in the audit about response times being too slow and MacKay emphasized that search and rescue technicians consistently take off from their bases within minutes. He did acknowledge that extending the hours for 30-minute response times could stretch resources.
"The auditor general said the existing provision of search and rescue is adequate. Adequate is not good enough. We need excellent," he said. "That will require further investments, that will require the improvements that we have announced today, it will require investments in equipment and in personnel."
Ferguson also noted that the reaction time standards for the Canadian Forces are based on the resources they have available, not on what is actually needed. Ferguson suggested that readiness standards should instead be based on current and anticipated search and rescue needs.
One of his other major concerns is that there is no national SAR policy, no overall planning or governance framework that sets out objectives for the program or performance indicators.
Ferguson also concluded that DND does not have enough suitable planes and helicopters for SAR activities. Some can't reach remote sites without refuelling, and some don't have de-icing systems and are otherwise outdated. Some of the planes have been flying for 45 years, so getting spare parts for them is difficult and costly.
The federal government's process to replace aging rescue aircraft has been dragging on for years and been plagued with problems. Procurement of new aircraft is the responsibility of Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose who said the slow pace of replacing SAR aircraft "hasn't been acceptable," but she pointed to a new process that began last year.
MacKay acknowledged on Tuesday that staff don't have the aircraft they need and he said again Thursday that he has been doing his best to get them.
"Anybody that thinks or would suggest that I have not been pushing to get fixed-wing search and rescue aircraft since I became minister in 2007, hasn't been paying attention," he said. "I've announced today the things that are in my swim lane and my purview, to effect immediately."