Fixing search and rescue must be priority, AG says

Canada's auditor general says the federal government is mismanaging its search and rescue responsibilities, allowing the military to use old and broken down airplanes and helicopters that are too few in number, or not suited for rescue work in the first place.

Michael Ferguson's report suggests new equipment and personnel required

The auditor general's latest report raises concerns about the sustainability of federal search and rescue activities because of aging equipment and personnel shortages. (Andrew Vaughan/Canadian Press)

Canada's auditor general says the federal government is mismanaging its search and rescue responsibilities.

In his spring report to Parliament, tabled Tuesday, Michael Ferguson said the government has allowed the military to use old and broken down airplanes and helicopters that are too few in number, or not suited for rescue work in the first place.

Some of the military's search planes have been in service for 45 years. The military has failed to replace the planes, despite having a plan to do it for more than a decade now.

Ferguson said Canada is lacking a national policy that would help make search and rescue a top priority.

The military's persistent failure to actually buy new search planes — despite 10 years of trying — poses a significant risk to Canada's rescue system, the auditor general said.

Ferguson singled out the military for failing to prioritize search and rescue, and ensure it has the equipment and people to do the job. The use of too old planes, and too few, or unsuitable, helicopters, puts the military in danger of failing in its so-called, "no fail mission."

At a press conference following the tabling of his report, Ferguson said he can't quantify what potential risks are being posed to Canadians by the concerns over equipment and personnel raised in his report.

"Hopefully what this report will do is help to focus the fact that the attention needs to be put into this service in order to have an overall plan and strategy for how it’s going to be delivered in the future."

Defence Minister Peter Mackay said he accepts the auditor general's findings and acknowledged there have been ongoing delays in replacing much-need aircraft.

"The reality is that while the process is underway it has not delivered the aircraft that we need," Mackay told reporters outside the House of Commons Tuesday.

Public Works Minister Rona Ambrose also said the slow pace of replacing Search and Rescue aircraft "hasn't been acceptable," but pointed to a new process that began last year.

"We initiated a new process that was open, transparent and will be very competitive. We expect potentially four to five bidders and we've held already a number of 'industry days' with industry to move this procurement forward," Ambrose told reporters.

"We do know that these planes need to be replaced and we're working very hard on the procurement side of things to make sure that that happens," she said.

But the Liberals said in a statement the report shows that Canadians should be concerned over the sustainability of SAR.

"Under this government, our air and marine SAR system is in crisis and requires 'significant improvements' if we're going to keep Canadians safe," said Defence critic John McKay in the statement.

NDP MP Malcolm Allen agreed with the auditor general that Search and Rescue must be a priority.

"It can't be something pushed to the backburner," Allen said at a midday press conference.

Too much for the military?

Canada's search and rescue territory covers 18 million square kilometres and more than 243,800 kilometres of coastline. Managing that is proving almost too much for the military, according to Ferguson's report.

The aim is to dispatch a search plane within 30 minutes of receiving a call — but only during business hours. After 4 p.m., or on weekends, the military asks for two hours to respond.

It meets this goal about 85 per cent of the time, Ferguson's report said.

The Canadian Coast Guard, by contrast, asks for a 30-minute response time for all calls, and meets this goal 96 per cent of the time.

The auditor general said both agencies need more rescue personnel to improve their performance.

Ferguson also said the computer system the military uses to manage search missions is old and failing, and could break down at any time — and, in fact, it already has once.

All of this, the report said, could be fixed if search and rescue was made more of a priority and an overarching policy was put in place that would see the military kept accountable for its search and rescue responsibilities.

There is some good news in Ferguson's report, though: He says the military is meeting the minimum standard.