One of the Canadian military's most dangerous jobs leaves a trail of injuries
‘Guys are getting injured faster than we can replace them,’ says search and rescue technician
Submerged underwater more than 270 kilometres off the coast of Newfoundland, Sgt. Damien Robison almost ran out of air.
He was tethered to a helicopter hovering over a nearby fishing boat that was in distress. He was in the water to help save five sealers, but was hit by a 12-metre wave that drove him below the surface.
Chunks of ice in the water whipped by as Robison tried to puzzle out how he and the sealers would survive.
That happened on March 5, 2017, on what Robison considers a good day on the job. It was good because he, his crew and the sealers all got home safe.
After that rescue, Robison said he was pretty banged up. Getting hit by a wave almost the size of a four-storey building can do that.
He's not alone. Many Canadian Forces Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR techs) are getting injured on the job and it's putting a strain on the service.
SAR techs are members of the Royal Canadian Air Force who perform the most dangerous rescue missions. They parachute out of planes and are lowered from helicopters into deadly and unforgiving environments.
"Guys are getting injured faster than we can replace them," said Robison.
"They can't be put on the schedule, which means someone else is going to have to increase the amount they're going to have to work. Now you've increased the chances of something happening, and the chances of them having to go out and flying more and doing more missions because someone else is now injured. So there's definitely sort of a vicious circle."
At the end of May, four of the 24 full-time SAR techs in Nova Scotia couldn't fly because of injuries, according to Robison, a SAR tech and search and rescue team leader out of CFB Greenwood.
Four people may not seem like many, but four is a magic number. In Nova Scotia, four SAR techs work the day shift, four work overnight and four are kept on in reserve.
"If you take three or four guys off the schedule now because of injuries, that could be an entire shift you're missing for that day just in injuries," Robison said. "We don't have optimal levels at almost any point in time."
Even with the injuries Robison said rescue crews are still able to perform their duties. It just means more work for the people able to fly, which in turn leads to a greater chance they'll end up injured, too.
It's a problem across the country according to Robison because there are so few SAR techs and so much work to do.
There are only about 110 SAR techs ready to perform rescue operations across the country and they respond to as many as 800 emergency calls a year, according to Lt.-Col. Jonathan Nelles, senior staff officer for search and rescue at 1 Canadian Air Division in Winnipeg.
Prospects in the SAR tech program are trained at the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue in British Columbia.
Nelles said increasing the number of graduates entering the service each year would help. The number currently is 14-16 and that could be boosted to 16-18.
"The school has increased its production in the last year and we're wanting that to continue for another couple of years so that we can make sure that we have the right number of people at the units so we can overcome some of the short-term injury rates that seem to crop up on us," said Nelles.
Colin Sproul wants the staffing problems fixed as soon as possible. He's vice president of the Bay of Fundy Inshore Fishermen's Association.
"The community that I live in, every single one of us has friends and family who are alive today because of their work and it's not something that we take lightly," he said. "We don't forget that as fishermen. Anything they want in our eyes they deserve. They're real Canadian heroes and money should be no object to their line of business or staffing levels."
SAR techs have the most important job on the coast, according to Frank Brown, a former fisherman from Summerford, N.L. He said he's only alive today because of them.
Brown was on the fishing boat that was in distress back in March of last year.
"Parts of the boat started to crack up and cables were breaking and it wasn't a nice situation to be in, you know when you see waves coming at you 40 and 50 feet high," he said. "That was higher than the boat and you had no control over your boat because the sea just threw you all over the place."
The boat was in such bad shape Brown and the four other sealers had to jump overboard in their survival suits to be rescued.
"When I looked in the eyes of my buddies on that boat you could see the fear in their eyes. When you look in their eyes and see the fear, you know damn well they seen the fear in my eyes."
Brown watched as Robison get jostled around by high winds as he was lowered from the helicopter. He also saw Robison get struck by a monster wave. But Brown never doubted that he and the rest of the crew would be OK.
Brown was right. A little while later he and the rest of the sealing crew had been hoisted safely into the Cormorant helicopter.
"You know everyday that they goes to work they're risking their own lives to save someone else's life, you know they got to be special people to do what they does. I tell you it's not just anybody off the street that could do what they're doing," said Brown.
That's a big part of the staffing problem facing the military. Only a handful of people can even qualify to do the training to become SAR techs and even fewer people graduate.
In order to apply to become a SAR tech at the Canadian Forces School of Search and Rescue, a person must already have four years of service with some division of the Canadian Forces.
Candidates then take part in a selection process which ends with a land-survival course that runs more than two weeks. If successful, the person is granted admission to the course.
That's the easy part.
The next 12 months are a gruelling physical and mental test to see if candidates have what it takes not only to survive, but thrive, in the most difficult environments in the country.
Some of the training includes Arctic survival, land survival, rescue diving, mountain survival, parachuting and primary-medical-care paramedic training.
"There's nothing within the air force that's as physically challenging as our occupation," said Chief Warrant Officer Wayde Simpson, chief instructor for search and rescue at the school.
In 2017, only 21 of 80 applicants were admitted to the school.
Given the risky situations SAR techs go into, Simpson said the school's high standards can't be relaxed to allow more SAR techs to fill the ranks.
"When you have such specialized training like that you can't just say, 'OK, let's double the numbers. You know, let's put 30 through.' It doesn't work that way because we have such a high standard for a graduate … hence why our course loads are up to 20 maximum."
While more prospects are trained, people like Robison will continue to fly into danger more frequently to cover shifts for injured co-workers. The father of three said he accepts the risks of the job, and so does his family.
"They know that it may come down to the, you know, worst-case scenario and I don't come back from a mission, but we need people in Canada to be able to do that."