Nfld. & Labrador

Military rescue times need study, N.L. premier says

Newfoundland and Labrador's premier and its opposition leader say search and rescue services provided by the federal government must be investigated to see if improvements are necessary.

Politicians say CBC's The Fifth Estate raised questions that need answering

A Cormorant search and rescue helicopter hovers over the burning fishing vessel Nautical Legacy in 2007. ((DFO))

Newfoundland and Labrador's premier and the opposition leader say search and rescue services provided by the federal government must be investigated to see if improvements are necessary.

Progressive Conservative Leader Kathy Dunderdale said a recent episode of CBC's The Fifth Estate on search and rescue has left her with concerns about the military's service.

"It is not satisfactory to the people of this province, to the people who earn their living on the sea, to be at further risk because of a slow response time or policies that affect response time in marine search and rescue," she said.

Dunderdale said she plans to vigorously pursue the issue of search and rescue with the federal government.

Liberal Leader Kevin Aylward agreed and went further, calling for a full inquiry into federal search and rescue services.

Both Aylward and Dunderdale are campaigning in preparation for the provincial election on Oct. 11.

Substandard service

Aylward said the Fifth Estate investigation shows that search and rescue in Canada is far behind international standards.

The show pointed out, as federal Newfoundland MP Jack Harris did during the Wells inquiry into offshore helicopter safety, that many other countries provide search and rescue services with much shorter response times.

The Fifth Estate's Linden MacIntyre asked why the Department of National Defence believes three helicopters stationed in Gander are sufficient to cover the search and rescue needs of an area the size of Europe, and why required response times can stretch up to two hours — while private operators require rescue crews to be in the air within 20 minutes of a distress call.

The military is expected have a search and rescue crew in the air less than 30 minutes after receiving a call between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays. At all other times, it's expected to be in the air within two hours.

In February 2010, a House of  Commons committee on national defence hearing in St. John's was told that the U.K.'s coast guard responds to calls within 15 minutes from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., and within 45 minutes after that all other times. It was also told that rescue services in Norway and the United States offer response times similar to those in the U.K.

Robert Wells is a retired judge who led an inquiry into helicopter offshore helicopter safety in Newfoundland and Labrador. ((CBC))

It’s an issue that retired Supreme Court Justice Robert Wells addressed when he called for improvements to response times during the inquiry into offshore helicopter safety. In February 2010, Wells said Cougar's current search and rescue response time doesn't meet the highest standards.

Wells said a full-time, dedicated and fully equipped response helicopter ready to go in 15 or 20 minutes is needed in St. John’s to serve the province’s growing offshore oil industry. He also said Cougar is able to provide faster response time in other jurisdictions where it operates, such as Alaska, the Northwest Territories, the Gulf of Mexico and Greenland.

Last winter, in an email to CBC News, the commanding officer of Gander's 103 Squadron said the military's search and rescue response times are, on average, much better than those targets. Maj. Steve Reid said that the average airborne response time Monday to Friday is 18 minutes, or 50 minutes at all other times.