Canada

‘It takes a special person

In the world of search and rescue, danger is a constant companion

John DeMont October 25 1999
Canada

‘It takes a special person

In the world of search and rescue, danger is a constant companion

John DeMont October 25 1999

‘It takes a special person

Canada

In the world of search and rescue, danger is a constant companion

John DeMont

Oct. 15 was, in many ways, a typical shift for the frontline troops in Canada's maritime search-and-rescue system. A Canadian Coast Guard ship steamed towards Cabot Strait, between Cape Breton and Newfoundland, where one piece of a floating dry dock being towed by a Russian icebreaker to the Bahamas was listing badly in stormy eight-metre seas after the line snapped. Back in Halifax, personnel manning the Rescue Co-ordination Centre were monitoring the second piece of the dry dock, which was loose and floating off the west coast of New-

foundland as a tugboat tried to control it. Mostly, though, their attention was focused 50 km from the Gaspé Peninsula in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, where searchand-rescue—commonly called SAR— aircraft were searching for the Veryan, a 19-m shrimp boat that had been without power since the night before and was being battered by nasty nine-metre waves.

The five men manning the boat were cold, tired and scared. Evacuating them by a hoist lowered from a helicopter presented problems. The small boat was listing badly. If the SAR expert whose job it

was to land on the moving target miscalculated, he stood the danger of being impaled on the boat’s mast. Adding to the difficulty were winds of close to 100 km/h, which made it all but impossible for the helicopter to hold its position while the rescue attempt took place. Yet, despite everything, the manoeuvre went off like clockwork: the rescuer hit the target each time, bringing the five crewmen up into the waiting helicopter. And an hour after the rescue began, it was over—safely. For good measure, on the way home the SAR techs, as they are known, used the hoist to rescue a sailor on a sailboat that had lost its mast in the Northumberland Strait, nine kilometres off the coast of Prince Edward Island.

All in a day’s work for the daredevils from the 413 Transport and Rescue Squadron. When there is trouble in East Coast waters, Canadian Forces and coast guard personnel, who joindy run the Halifax co-ordination centre, can deploy four Hercules military planes and five Canadian Forces Labrador helicopters—as well as the coast guard’s one ship and eight cutters. In a pinch, they can even call out a Canadian Forces frigate—or request any private

plane or ship that happens to be in the area to help out. The squadron, one of five SAR teams across the country (the others are in Gander, Nfld., Trenton, Ont., Comox, B.C., and Winnipeg), covers a territory that measures almost 12 million square kilometres: from just east of Quebec City to the middle of the Atlantic Ocean—1,700 km past Canada’s international boundary—and north to Baffin Island. For the squadron’s 22 SAR techs, going to work could mean climbing a mountain to save an injured hiker, undertaking rescues at sea or, as was the case in August, parachuting from a Hercules aircraft into the frigid North Atlantic waters off Newfoundland and swimming to a cargo ship to apply first aid to a badly burned seaman.

Danger is to be expected when the job description includes regularly flying into life-threatening weather and situations. Last October, six members of 413 died when their 35-year-old Labrador helicopter crashed while returning from an operation in Quebec. That accident, the result of an engine fire, heightened concerns about aging equipment and safety at a time of continuing federal cutbacks. But the SAR

‘We are all adrenaline junkies—we want to save people, but we’re also here for the excitement’

techs—who work for a maximum of $48,000 a year—hardly blink an eye. “I guess we are all adrenaline junkies,” explains Sgt. Brian Weir, 38, who has worn the orange SAR tech beret for 10 years. “We want to save people, but were also here for the excitement.”

Recendy, with Macleans aboard for the ride, six orange-suited SAR techs stood calmly in single file at the open tail door of a Hercules aircraft flying over Nova Scotia’s Annapolis Valley. They had already circled the Bay of Fundy, and completed a practice drop of a metal sled filled with medical supplies. Now they were ready for a practice jump—unlike the hundreds of real ones the members of 413 squadron make each year. In fact, team members had earlier received notice they might be sent that afternoon to the Labrador coast to search for a boadoad of Inuit hunters (they ultimately turned up safely). Neither that prospect—or the thought of jumping out of an airplane at 900 m—seemed to raise the anxiety level in the plane. When the order sounded in their headsets, the SAR techs took a few short steps before springing out of the aircraft—clear blue sky overhead and the rolling farmland of Nova Scotia below. The last jumper twisted 180 degrees in the air and waved a playful goodbye before his parachute opened.

The SAR techs have seen it all. In 1998, the Halifax centre received 2,390 calls for assistance. Of those, 410 were classified as true distress cases. By the end of August this year—well before the onset of the always treacherous winter storm season—distress calls to the centre were already running 25 per cent higher than during the same period in

1998. “Winter always brings a couple of major calamities,” points out Capt. John Van Oosten, deputy officer in charge of the Halifax rescue centre.

Given the dangers, says squadron commander Lt.-Col. Mike Dorey, “it takes a special person to work search and rescue.” Some critics say the risks are augmented by aging, deteriorating equipment. The first of 15 new Cormorant helicopters, purchased by Ottawa in a $790-million deal in January, 1998, to replace the aging Labradors, is not scheduled to arrive until 2001. Until then, the squadron must make do with helicopters purchased 36 years ago, which generate controversy each time a new safety concern comes to light.

The latest controversy, which broke in August, revolved around a Canadian Forces report that showed military officials were worried about excessive rust on the helicopters causing a fatal crash. Even the new Cormorants will not set everything right. The reason: Canada’s search-and-rescue system seems to be springing leaks. A defence department review released in August concluded that the SAR system’s response capacity had been “seriously impacted” by the deficit-conscious Chrétien government’s decision to review the funding of all federal programs after the 1993 election. The problem was not in direct funding: SARs $290-million budget remained virtually untouched when the Liberal government decreed that program spending must decline by 12 per cent by the 1998-1999 fiscal year. The danger was in the erosion of support services.

According to the expert panel that completed the report, across-the-board

cutbacks hit the department of national defence, the department of fisheries and oceans, Parks Canada and other federal departments. Those departments supply the secondary line of defence when SARs ships and aircraft are either in use or laid up for repair. Cutting back their budgets reduced their ability to supply alternative vessels, planes and personnel to supplement SAR. “There is now a risk,” the authors concluded, “that the SAR program will become a public policy issue.”

So far, Ottawa seems less than willing to commit new funding to prop up the system. Instead, military brass confirmed last month that the Greenwood base itself is being threatened. The SAR squadron moved there in June, 1991, after the military base in Summerside, PE.L, closed due to budget cuts. Now, the Nova Scotia base is among the ones where deep personnel cuts are being considered to help cover the cost of Canada’s overseas military missions (not to mention the price tab for new helicopters). Greenwood has already been ordered to contract out the maintenance work for the Cormorants, when they arrive, as a cost-cutting measure.

SAR team members cannot afford to be distracted by such worries. Their world is one where a slip-up can mean disaster—even if fear is something no SAR tech will talk about, let alone acknowledge. They take the SAR tech motto—“That Others May Live”—to heart. “We are paid to go where no one else can,” says Weir. No matter how long the odds can sometimes seem. El