POLITICS

RCAF to test rapid rescue response time as new planes remain in limbo

01/06/2015 03:51 EST | Updated 03/08/2015 05:59 EDT
OTTAWA - The air force is planning to test an expanded, more flexible response time for search and rescue along the East Coast in the coming year, even as long-delayed plans for new aircraft remain in a holding pattern.

National Defence has been quietly evaluating the merits of positioning its helicopters and fixed-wing planes to respond within 30 minutes of an emergency call 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

According to its own defence acquisition guide, the Harper government was supposed to issue a call for tenders last year as part of its oft-delayed, decade-long plan to buy fixed-wing search planes, with a contract award expected this year.

One federal official, who was not authorized to speak to the media, said Tuesday the proposal request is still being developed as the military refines its expectations, and it will be a few months yet before it's made public.

An around-the-clock half hour response time is an idea the air force has long dismissed as too costly and manpower-intensive. But the issue came into sharper focus in 2012 following the death of 14 year-old Burton Winters of Makkovik, N.L.

It took two days for military aircraft to join the search for Winters, died on the sea ice off the coast of Labrador after he went missing in January 2012. The air force said at the time that equipment malfunctions and poor weather delayed its arrival and that nothing they could have done differently would have saved the boy.

After a harsh auditor general's report in the spring of 2013, National Defence began a series of assessments with different squadrons around the country, including bases in Trenton, Ont., Winnipeg, and Victoria, B.C.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act show the evaluation will be expanded to Halifax this summer.

As it stands now, rescue crews at five main bases across the country can become airborne within 30 minutes of a call only between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. On weekends and holidays, the expected response time drops to two hours.

Auditor general Michael Ferguson’s report said the military could do better. Former defence minister Peter MacKay ordered rescue commanders to alter the hours of operation as needed.

National Defence spokeswoman Ashley Lemire said two of the base trials — Trenton and Winnipeg — were deemed successful, while the one in Victoria is still being evaluated. According to internal data obtained by CP, the rejigging of schedules in Trenton saw "an improved response time to 150 SAR incidents."

Aircrews and ground crews were able to cope with the higher demands, Lemire said in an email.

But an after-action report that looked at the Trenton experiment found "there was a significant impact on quality of life (QOL) due to working 7 days per week including weekends with the current personnel establishment numbers."

It remains to be seen whether the government will order the military to adopt the higher standard once the Halifax evaluation is completed.

In 2008, the air force estimated it would need up to $2.6 billion more for aircraft and infrastructure and $314 million in extra operational funding in order to adopt the around-the-clock posture.

The evaluation pointed to data that suggested out of 1,054 rescue missions, only nine were time sensitive. Of those, a 30-minute response time might have made a difference in three cases.

Interestingly, when the National Research Council looked at the issue, it cast doubt on the air force's evaluation, saying it should not be used a cornerstone for a future decision because only 119 of the cases were actually studied by military planners.

The data used "was highly filtered and conclusions were drawn based on 'witness testimony and anecdotal evidence,'" the council found.