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A Cormorant helicopter  (Courtesy DND) A Cormorant helicopter (Courtesy DND)

In Depth

Search and Rescue

Search and Rescue

Last Updated July 19, 2005

One fact stands out when trying to understand the challenge for search and rescue (SAR) in Canada: the size of the operation. It covers over 15.5 million square kilometres.

That includes Canada's huge land territory and territorial waters, as well as stretches of the Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic oceans that are this country's responsibility.

The Canadian Forces has been in charge of co-ordinating search and rescue since it was assigned the task by the federal cabinet in 1947, when the Royal Canadian Air Force was given the prime responsibility, a role it still holds.

Other arms of the Canadian Forces, plus the coast guard, RCMP, local police and civilian volunteers co-ordinate efforts depending on the details of the rescue.

A federal agency called the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) brings together all federal agencies and departments that may be involved in search and rescue, the provinces and municipalities, and volunteers.

The volunteers are represented by various groups including the Search and Rescue Volunteers Association of Canada (SARVAC). The Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) often assists in search and rescue efforts using private aircraft. The Canadian Marine Rescue Association (CMRA) has a similar role with private boats or vessels.

The air force operates three Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centres, in Halifax, Trenton, Ont., and Victoria, and with the Canadian Coast Guard, two Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres in Quebec City and St. John's, Nfld.

Both the search and the rescue phases, in most cases, depend on eyes in the sky. It is the Canadian air force that conducts most of those operations, using a variety of aircraft from the new Cormorant helicopter to the fixed wing Buffalo and Aurora airplanes.

At sea, the Canadian Coast Guard, sometimes assisted by the navy, is responsible for surface rescues along the coast and at sea. Civilians who are members of the coast guard auxiliary assist both the coast guard and local police, often in inland waters where there are no major coast guard vessels.

Local rescue operations are usually coordinated by the local police assisted by trained volunteers and by the air force when needed.

Canada also co-ordinates its efforts with the United States (where the coast guard, air force, air national guard and navy share responsibility) and other nations, both in co-operating with rescue efforts and by using the satellites that can detect emergency radio beacons from aircraft, ships or individuals in trouble.

Canada uses three aircraft as its main tools for airborne search efforts: the Hercules for long range missions, the Buffalo for mountain operations on the West Coast, and the new Cormorant helicopter. The Canadian Forces can also use the Aurora maritime patrol aircraft and the Griffon helicopter.

Canada's front line rescue personnel are the air force SAR Techs--Search And Rescue Technicians--specially trained specialists who act as spotters watching for a missing or injured person, drop equipment by parachute or by hoist, and often jump into remote areas or into the ocean.

A search and rescue (SAR) technician carries out a practice jump at Goose Spit, on Vancouver Island, during a 2004 training exercise. (Courtesy DND Combat Camera/WO Peter Veldhuizen) A search and rescue (SAR) technician carries out a practice jump at Goose Spit, on Vancouver Island, during a 2004 training exercise. (Courtesy DND Combat Camera/WO Peter Veldhuizen)

The SAR Techs are also trained to organize and assist other rescue teams and provide medical care. They are trained to operate across the vast reaches of Canada, the Arctic, mountains, glaciers, forest and the open ocean. They are trained in special rescue techniques using fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, as well as boats. Their tools include both parachutes and scuba gear.

The RCMP also has responsibility for search and rescue in eight provinces – Ontario and Quebec have provincial police forces with a similar role – and the three territories. An RCMP SAR co-ordinator is in charge in each region.

When a missing persons report becomes a search and rescue mission, a local RCMP search commander organizes the effort, using police and volunteers. The RCMP uses officers specially trained in search and rescue, as well as its helicopters, boats and dog teams.

Other agencies often involved in search and rescue include Parks Canada and its provincial counterparts, and the federal and provincial ministries of natural resources and forestry.

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