06/10/2013 02:13 EDT | Updated 08/10/2013 05:12 EDT

Military told to vary rescue times a year before auditor general's criticism

OTTAWA - The Canadian air force was told more than year before being rapped on the knuckles by the auditor general that varying its hours of search-and-rescue operations would mean significantly improved response times for people in distress.

The Defence Research and Development Canada analysis, obtained by The Canadian Press, examined in detail the way rescue squadrons do business.

The analysis says tinkering with the schedule would give joint rescue centres more leverage "to save lives without increasing" the staffing levels of air force units.

Despite the conclusion of the March 2012 report, the recommendation gathered dust until the military was taken to task in April by the auditor general, who found the rescue system is close to the "breaking point."

Examining data over a five-year period in the early 2000s, the report says as many as 20 people — out of 814 involved in rescues during that time — would have benefited from shorter response times.

The report was commissioned by the head of the air force in late 2007 and looked at data over a five-year period.

Had operational hours been adjusted, rescue centres in Victoria and Trenton would have been able to respond more quickly to almost 50 per cent of the cases, said the 52-page analysis.

In response to auditor Michael Ferguson's report, Defence Minister Peter MacKay "encouraged" local commanders to adjust their hours of operation, among other things.

The military is currently required to get a rescue aircraft off the runway within 30 minutes of an emergency call between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday to Friday, and within two hours outside that window.

The national search-and-rescue manual already gives commanders that authority, "to realign SAR standby periods" so that they coincide with periods of greatest search-and-rescue, particularly during the summer months.

The department was unable to immediately comment on why the report wasn't acted on, or what consideration it was given.

But a spokeswoman for MacKay, Paloma Aguilar, underscored squadron commanders have been told to be more flexible, and that a comprehensive review of the search-and-rescue has been ordered.

But New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said he doesn't understand why the minister hasn't taken a more decisive stand and ordered the hours be adjusted in each sector to better reflect the average rescue times.

"It's just not acceptable the government can ignore these reports, and only respond with half measures," Harris said Monday. "That's not direction. That's not a directive."

At the time of his announcement, MacKay took pains to emphasize the air force "meets and often exceeds" the mandatory time, but the research report paints a more nuanced picture.

It shows that during the 30-minute launch window, it takes as an average of 40 minutes to get a C-130 Hercules fixed-wing aircraft into the air. Both the C-115 Buffalo and the CH-149 Cormorant helicopters meet the deadline.

All aircraft meet the two-hour take-off timeline.

The Harper government is currently trying to replace both the Hercules and Buffalos.

Harris said there is clearly something wrong when the air force can't get a Hercules into the air in less than half an hour.

He said he suspects it has something to do with the pilot and crew shortage referenced in the auditor's report.

Defence sources, who were not authorized to speak to the news media, said there is a myriad of reasons the C-130s struggle to meet the 30-minute deadline, including a long pre-flight check list and the fact aircraft are not "quarantined," meaning they are fuelled and ready to go a moment's notice.