04/30/2013 10:13 EDT | Updated 06/30/2013 05:12 EDT

Auditor General Report: Canada's Search-And-Rescue System At 'Breaking Point'


OTTAWA - The federal auditor general says the country's search-and-rescue system is in distress and some elements are near the breaking point.

Michael Ferguson's latest report issued Tuesday singled out the Royal Canadian Air Force, saying a continuing shortage of pilots and trained crew puts the system in jeopardy.

He also said the country doesn't have enough — or the right type — of aircraft to respond to emergencies across the vast, open spaces of land and sea.

The Harper government has repeatedly promised to deliver new aircraft to replace the air force's aging fleet of C-115 Buffaloes and older model C-130 Hercules, the workhorses of rescue missions.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay has often referred to the procurement as a "top priority."

But the program, started under the Liberals in 2002, is not expected to deliver a new plane until 2017.

"National Defence has not sufficiently replaced and has had difficulty maintaining its SAR aircraft at the necessary level to respond to SAR incidents effectively," the auditor's report said.

Ferguson noted the Hercules do not have sensors and data management systems found on search aircraft in other countries.

The cost of maintaining the nearly 50-year-old Buffaloes has climbed to $20 million a year and there's a shortage of spare parts.

Keeping both aircraft flying until 2017 will require substantial cash for life extensions.

Ferguson raised concerns about the availability and range of rescue helicopters, especially the CH-146 Griffon, which cannot get to Arctic without refuelling.

Liberal critic John McKay said inaction endangers lives.

The auditor would not go as far as to say that, but indicated change is urgently required.

"At this point, we would expect they would try to put something together; a plan; a strategy that brings all of this together to address all of the concerns that we've raised," he said.

"The concerns that we raised were not particularly difficult to find. It's not hard to find aircraft that have been around for 45 years. Hopefully, this report will help focus the attention that needs to be put into this service in order for it have an overall plan and strategy."

The defence minister said he accepts all of the auditor's recommendations, and acknowledged the program has faced too many delays.

"The reality is that while the process is underway, it has not delivered the aircraft we need, that our SAR (technicians) deserve," he said. "It's complicated in that we have a number of departments that touch on this file for the delivery of the aircraft itself."

The government expects to call for tenders this fall, he said.

New Democrat MP Malcolm Allen said the report speaks to the Conservative government's mismanagement of the military.

"We need these things to happen and happen quickly and this delay process has simply continued on and on and this really speaks to this government's ability to manage its departments," he said.

Ferguson said the air force and the coast guard generally meet their response time goals, but the system can be improved.

The air force is able to get a search plane or helicopter airborne on a rescue call within its set response period about 85 per cent of the time.

But that response time, sometimes the subject of heated public debate, is qualified.

The air force will respond within 30 minutes during business hours Monday to Friday. Outside of that window, the time increases to two hours.

Ferguson said minor tweaking of the schedule could improve the response, something the military has already noted in two previous studies.

The coast guard has demonstrated it can get going within 30 minutes about 96 per cent of the time.

Meanwhile, the information management system used to track search-and-rescue cases is "near the breaking point," but will not be replaced until 2016.

The auditor says the system is not considered "mission critical" and doesn't have any continuing information technology support.

Newfoundland Liberal MP Gerry Byrne said the auditor's report underscores the mistake the government is making by closing a search-and-rescue sub-station in his province.

He said it's clear the main East Coast centre in Halifax will be overloaded, and the potential for disaster is great, especially given the shaky information management system.

The report comes two weeks before a May 13 federal byelection in Labrador, where search and rescue is an especially sensitive topic.

The province and Ottawa have not acted on repeated calls for a public inquiry into emergency response services since the death of 14-year-old Burton Winters last year. He disappeared while snowmobiling on Jan. 29, 2012 outside the tiny Inuit community of Makkovik on the Labrador coast.

His body was found three days later on the sea ice, his footprints indicating he'd walked 19 kilometres from his abandoned snowmobile before lying down to die.

The military blamed weather and equipment malfunctions for the fact that it took two days for its aircraft to join the search.

On Tuesday, Premier Kathy Dunderdale said in the legislature that she will launch a "full-court press" to urge the federal government to improve search and rescue.

Meanwhile, in a separate report, Ferguson took National Defence to task for not having a departmental security plan, something that came to light during the spy scandal involving navy sub-lieutenant Jeffery Delisle.

MacKay said he's not satisfied with the department's response to security concerns around contractors and that it could move faster. He expects to see an interim report by the fall of this year.

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