Nfld. & Labrador·CBC Investigates

3 mayors call on Furey for action on 'critical' helicopter rescue service

The mayors of St. John's, Mount Pearl and Paradise have told Premier Andrew Furey they have been kept in the dark about efforts to reinstate helicopter rescue services in the region.

In emails discussing grounded team, RNC brass cited ‘life and death’ situations

A member of the St. John's Regional Fire Department helicopter rescue team transports an injured person to safety near Flatrock, N.L., in August 2017. (CBC)

The mayors of St. John's, Mount Pearl and Paradise have told Premier Andrew Furey they have been kept in the dark about efforts to reinstate helicopter rescue services in the region, despite public claims by the Newfoundland and Labrador government to the contrary.

And, in a letter obtained by CBC News, they called for swift action to get the rescue teams back in the air.

"With the summer approaching and more people in the community using trails, the [St. John's Regional Fire Department] is not able to provide rescue services, which is a critical emergency service," the mayors wrote in a March 17 letter to Furey, obtained through an access-to-information request.

Not only that, they wrote, there is confusion about what happens if someone needs help.

"There have been no clear protocols put in place, or communicated to us or SJRFD, by the provincial government on current roles and responsibilities should a person find themselves deep in a trail with major injuries, and in need of a rescue," St. John's Mayor Danny Breen, Mount Pearl Mayor Dave Aker and Paradise Mayor Dan Bobbett wrote.

"We are concerned that at the most crucial time for these services, the answers will not be readily available, or SJRFD will be expected to provide a service which it is not equipped to provide."

Messages from CBC News to the premier's office and Department of Transportation were routed to Justice and Public Safety, which did not make anyone available for an interview.

The Opposition Tories led off question period at the House of Assembly on Thursday afternoon by demanding some answers.

"Last month, transportation officials said they were working with St. John's Regional Fire Department to address this issue," Opposition House leader Barry Petten said in the legislature.

"Now we learn this is not correct. I ask the premier: who was telling the truth on this critical matter of public safety?"

Furey replied, "There's certainly space to improve on where we are. And the minister of justice and public safety is certainly looking at that right now."

Justice Minister John Hogan confirmed that a letter was sent back to the mayors.

"It's something that we're going to be working with them, going forward," Hogan said in the House.

"But it is a very specific and discrete issue related to rope teams at the St. John's Regional Fire Department."

St. John's firefighters avail of helicopter services via a provincial government contract that covers a wide array of uses — everything from medevacs to forestry work.

Last month, CBC Investigates reported that the rescue team has been grounded for nearly a year, due to delays in equipping the choppers now tasked with the job after a company that had held the contract went bankrupt.

Current status of service

The mayors did not speak publicly about the letter when contacted about it this week. Interview requests were instead steered to fire officials.

Roger Hounsell, the St. John's Regional Fire Department's deputy chief of operations, said "time is everything" in this type of work.

"The quicker that we can get to a person in distress, the better chance that they have of a good outcome," he said.

Roger Hounsell is the St. John's Regional Fire Department's deputy chief of operations. (Curtis Hicks/CBC)

Hounsell said members of the rescue team can currently be ferried by helicopter from point A to point B, to get as close as possible to a person who needs help.

After that, depending on their proximity to the injured party, the options are to complete a rescue on foot, or potentially via high angle when someone is stranded on a cliff.

"If we can only land in a certain area, it could potentially take us hours to actually walk to the rescue site," Hounsell said.

"If we're able to rappel or [use] another system, the pilot can put us directly above the person who's in trouble."

But that can't happen right now.

The helicopter rescue team provides service in the metro St. John's-Mount Pearl-Paradise area, the East Coast Trail, Signal Hill, and has at times gone to the Spout, the popular geyser on the trail. 

Hounsell called it a "very important service," and said they are hoping to meet soon with provincial officials to determine how this will work in the future.

Read the letter from three mayors to Premier Andrew Furey:

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'Their life could be in danger if not quickly rescued'

While the helicopter team is not called into action often — once or twice a year on average, in recent times — correspondence between city fire officials and top brass with the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary last summer shows concern about the gap in services.

The RNC plays a key decision-making role in those rescue operations.

"The need for an aircraft in a search and rescue capacity or removing an injured hiker from a trail could provide difficulties for our organizations without a contract in place for this service," Ed Oates, a deputy chief with the RNC, wrote in a July 15 email.

"Some of our situations unfortunately could be life and death."

The St. John's Regional Fire Department helicopter rescue team transports a patient in this 2017 file image. (CBC)

Another RNC deputy chief, Paul Woodruff, echoed those comments.

"All too often it is either a matter of ensuring a person's well-being, getting them immediate medical attention or their life could be in danger if not quickly rescued," Woodruff wrote the same day.

Earlier that month, RNC Chief Joe Boland had confirmed in an email to fire Chief Sherry Colford that "we do not have any formal agreement in place should we require services normally completed by your helicopter team."

CBC News also obtained those messages through access to information.

Fire chief noted lack of 'clear answers' from province

Last month, the Transportation Department told CBC News it had been working with the fire department to source the necessary equipment and have it installed.

But according to emails from the fire chief and the letter from the three mayors, that wasn't actually correct.

"There has been no contact made to SJRFD as indicated to the reporter by [the] provincial government," the mayors wrote on March 17.

Fire Chief Sherry Colford is pictured in a 2018 file photo. Colford emailed provincial officials last month, about comments they made to CBC News concerning the St. John's Regional Fire Department's helicopter rescue team. (Submitted)

Earlier that month, before the initial story ran, Colford emailed senior Transportation Department officials, asking them to shed "some light on the province's response" to the CBC.

Colford wrote that she hadn't heard from provincial officials on the topic since last October.

"In previous discussions with the province, we were not able to receive clear answers to what our service would be moving forward, if any service at all," Colford wrote.

Deputy Minister Cory Grandy replied a couple of hours later, saying he didn't know why there is "a disconnect in our efforts to resolve this issue."

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