Helping hand: Canada's search and rescue mission to Jamaica

When Jamaica was having trouble keeping its search and rescue helicopters in the air, it turned to Canada for help. So we're there.

For over four decades, Canada trained the helicopter pilots and mechanics of the Jamaica Defence Force. But last year, Jamaica decided to bring home the training and do all the work itself.

However, its mechanics couldn't keep up with the demand and after a while the Jamaicans found themselves in the very uncomfortable position of not having enough working helicopters, meaning no way to conduct high-stakes rescues and medical evacuations. 

With a very bad hurricane season predicted, officials there were worried. So they called up Canada and asked if we could send down some of our world-class search and rescue crews.

Canada agreed and, in mid-August, sent along three Griffon helicopters and 65 Canadian Forces personnel — only the second time in history that Canada's search and rescue teams have been deployed in another country. 

Normally, the crews of the bright yellow choppers are responsible for rescuing sailors at sea, or finding the survivors of a plane crash, or hoisting those trapped by floodwaters.

In Jamaica, they're doing much the same thing. But there's a bonus in this for Canada — the training.  In recent years, every one of Canada's helicopter squadrons has been deployed to Afghanistan.

But the problem is that, while there, they've been flying combat support, which is very different from search and rescue. And SAR, as its known, is one of those skills that fades when you aren't doing it.

The net effect was that the SAR qualifications of many of Canada's helicopter pilots have expired and under normal circumstances it takes 18 months of training to requalify.

Helping Jamaica is an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. 

In the past month, the Canadian teams have been involved in rescues in Jamaica and in transporting the injured (including a severely burned man, and a 16-hour-old baby with breathing problems). But while they do this they are also "practising."

Canada deployed SAR instructors and evaluators on the Jamaica mission and the flying schedule is so intense – they're able to lower SAR specialists on hoists into thick forests and caves and at sea -- that 18 months of training will be done in about three. 

The Canadians arrived at the Up Park Military Base in Kingston in early August and will be there until November, when hurricane season has passed, and when the Jamaican copters are expected to be working again.