Military’s search and rescue personal are “best of the best,” but service is not

FISH-NL tells Senate committee response times of Cormorant helicopters don’t cut it; Labrador doesn’t even have one 

Ryan Cleary, President of FISH-NL, gave the following presentation in St. John’s Wednesday, March 8, before a Senate Fisheries and Oceans Committee studying the issue of Maritime Search and Rescue.

Good morning,  

I want to thank the Senate Fisheries and Oceans Committee for tackling the issue of Martine Search and Rescue, including challenges and opportunities.  

In particular,  I want to thank committee chair, Senator Fabian Manning.  

There’s no doubt of the honourable Senator’s passion for Newfoundland and Labrador and the sea. 

Or his sense of humour. 

I served more than four years in the House of Commons, with most of that time on the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, and took every opportunity to hold the Stephen Harper government to account on the floor of the Commons for its fisheries policies — including weaknesses with Search and Rescue. 

But then, at one point, Senator Manning went through the trouble to point out to our local media that I had as much influence on fisheries policy in Ottawa that he had “with foreign policy in the White House — absolutely none.”

Senator Manning, upon reflection, I think you were right about my sphere of influence as an Opposition MP from Newfoundland and Labrador. 

We can only hope that this Conservative-controlled Senate committee has more influence on fisheries policy in Justin Trudeau’s Liberal administration than I have with Donald Trump’s choice of hair products. 

As President of FISH-NL, a new union attempting to represent the province’s inshore fish harvesters, I want to first acknowledge — and thank — the Search and Rescue personal of 9 Wing Gander. 

It was only this past Sunday that five sealers aboard the fishing boat Northern Provider were plucked from the sea by search and rescue technicians aboard one of the military’s Cormorant helicopters. 

The vicious seas were compared to the movie Perfect Storm, which are pretty much normal working conditions for our search and rescue technicians.  

The Cormorant crew were described by one of the sealers as the best of the best — and they are. 

There is no question of the bravery or professionalism of the search and rescue personnel. 

It was only last year that a Cormorant helicopter from the 103 Search and Rescue Squadron in Gander reached a milestone in its service history. 

The helicopter conducted its 4000th successful mission since 1977 for the 103 squadron.

Let there be no mistake, the relationship between military search and rescue and our mariners is a deep one. 

But there are issues. 

Our first issue with search and rescue is the response times of the Cormorant helicopters. 

Canada lags behind international search-and-rescue norms — that’s an indisputable fact. 

The international search-and-rescue readiness standard is 30 minutes at all times of the day — from tasking a Cormorant to becoming airborne. 

Thirty minutes wheels up — 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, around the clock. 

That’s not the way it works here in Newfoundland and Labrador or across Canada where the wheels-up response time for the Cormorants are two-fold: 

Between Monday to Friday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., the wheels-up response time is 30 minutes. 

But after 4 p.m., and on weekends, and during holidays — the wheels-up response time is up to two hours. 

Can you imagine fire departments around the country operating with one response time during the day and another during evenings and on weekends? 

Canadians wouldn’t have it, because it would make no sense, because lives would be put at risk.  

A two-tier response time wouldn’t cut it in terms of fire on land, and a two-tier response time doesn’t cut in the North Atlantic where the survival time — in the absence of a survival suit — is measured in minutes. 

Let there be no doubt, the Canadian military’s two-tier search and rescue response time — the inadequate search and rescue response time — has cost lives, has cost the lives of Newfoundland and Labrador mariners, and will cost MORE lives if the search-and-rescue response time isn’t changed. 

The Melina and Keith II sank off Cape Bonavista on Sept. 12, 2005 while fishing turbot and shrimp. 

It took a Gander-based Cormorant approximately 3 hours and 8 minutes — after the capsized vessel was located — to arrive on scene. 

Three hours and eight minutes. 

And in that three hours and eight minutes four of the eight fishermen who were reportedly alive when the fishing boat went down had died. 

According to a Fifth Estate investigation in 2012, Newfoundland and Labrador is ground zero for search and rescue in Atlantic Canada. 

In fact, according to the Fifth Estate, between 2004 and 2012 there were nine cases where people died waiting for search and rescue. 

How many lives will it take for the Government of Canada to accept the fact that the search and rescue response — as it stands — isn’t good enough? 

A few years ago, Cougar Helicopters — which services the oil industry off Newfoundland and Labrador — implemented a wheels-up, search-and-rescue response time of 20 minutes around the clock. 

When it comes to survival time in the North Atlantic, there's no difference between a fisherman and an offshore oil worker. 

The survival time is the same. 

Why then the two-tier response times? 

More than that, most emergencies — more than 80 per cent — require search and rescue response outside the 30-minute response time period, outside of 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday to Friday. 

I might add the Canadian Coast Guard has a 24-hour response time of 30 minutes around the clock. 

Our second issue with Search and Rescue is the coverage off Labrador. 

There is no search and rescue Cormorant stationed in Labrador. 

The fishing vessel Atlantic Charger sank off northern Labrador on Sept. 22th, 2015. 

All 9 crewmen were rescued by a factory-freezer trawler after spending almost 11 hours in immersion suits and a life raft. 

The owner of the boat, Brad Watkins, who I spoke with just this week, said fishermen know they’re on their own off Labrador.  

To quote Mr. Watkins: “There is no quick rescue. There is no quick help. If something happens we’re done and that should never be.”

Finally, I cannot mention search and rescue and Labrador without bringing up 14-year-old Burton Winters of Makkovik who died on the ice near his community in the winter of 2012. 

Search and Rescue was asked to send a Cormorant out of Gander but the request was denied. 

By the time Search and Rescue sent a helicopter to help find the boy, he'd been missing for nearly 52 hours and walked 19 kilometres through a storm, and he had laid down on the ice and died. 

We are a seafaring people, and while our search and rescue personnel are the best of the best. 

The service is simply not. 

Thank you.