Arctic SAR Starts at Home

15 March 2012

Canada signed the International Arctic Search and Rescue agreement (IASAR) in May 2011. It was the first treaty of the Arctic Council. Let’s take these obligations seriously and build a robust search and rescue (SAR) capacity within Canada.

A community approach in the Canadian Arctic will develop capabilities from both the top-down and bottom-up. The RCMP have been doing this for the last century in much of the Canadian Arctic. This article will explore building capacity in communities and the important role that the Canadian Rangers can play along with the private sector and volunteer groups such as the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary and CASARA (the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association). The communities of this evolving Arctic are seeing demands for SAR capability on the rise.

CCGA Small Craft Training off of Hay River

Search and rescue often requires out-of-the-box thinking, leading to a need for strengthening capability in creative ways. For instance, we must find solutions to jurisdictional roadblocks and eliminate excuses. If Canada is to become a the leader in Arctic SAR, we will need to learn from past incidents and strengthen and empower our volunteers and agencies. Canada assumes the two-year chairmanship of the Arctic Council starting in 2013.

The United States is scheduled to take over the lead in 2015. Thus, over the next 4 years we can cooperatively develop a North American approach to strategy, tactics, training, best practices, and overall capability in the Arctic Ocean Basin.

The recent tragic death of Burton Winters in Labrador highlights the need for increasing capability and capacity in communities throughout Arctic and coastal Canada. Canadian Forces aircraft were not deployed due to weather. While there has been a lot of finger pointing concerning whether or not the CF should have provided air assets more promptly, the real issue is a broader one. A strong SAR capability must be solidly maintained for every northern and coastal community in Canada.

Ground SAR (GSAR) is a provincial responsibility handled primarily by police, but it gets complicated when a requirement falls in sparsely populated northern areas. When we think about the Arctic, we think of the area north of 60°N, however the tree line extends well below that, along the remote coast of Labrador, in Hudson Bay and Nunavik. The West Coast of British Columbia also is very remote with little infrastructure. We have seen that SAR incidents can and will continue to happen in remote areas – Canada needs to revise its SAR protocols. As Defence Minister peter MacKay recently confirmed, “Military officials will now proactively call back the lead agencies to ascertain whether Canadian Forces assets are still requested.” That is good, but is it proactive enough?

CCGA members from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, participate in a Small Craft Course on Great Slave Lake, NWT.

We do not have to look far for examples that gained media attention for private involvement in SAR. In Laborador, a private plane was the first to find Burton Winters, but it did not have any rescue capability. In British Columbia, we saw the March 2006 sinking of the BC ferry, M/V Queen of the North with the loss of two lives. The ferry was on an early-season cruise with only 110 passengers and crew on board that fateful night; later in the season, it would have had over 700 on board. The vessel was off course and collided with Gil Island in British Columbia's Inside Passage. As an example of the importance SAR partnerships with coastal communities, one of the first groups to respond was from the Hartley Bay First Nations Band. The Gitga’ata people of that community, many of whom were members of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (Pacific), played a key role in that rescue. They received the Lieutenant Governor citation for their efforts. Luckily there were very few people on the ferry, conditions were relatively calm, and the Coast Guard buoy tender CCG Wilfred Laurier was in close proximity. Had this happened further down the coast, we could have had another Costa Concordia situation on our hands with multiple fatalities and a marine mass casualty. Canada dodged a bullet on this incident, just like we did with the grounding of the cruiseship M/V Clipper Adventurer cruise ship in the Western Arctic in 2010.

We are seeing more and more SAR incidents occurring in remote locations.  In January 2012 alone, Burton Winters died in Labrador after walking 19km from his frozen snowmobile, and a plane carrying five people crashed and burned near the First Nations community of North Spirit Lake in northwestern Ontario, killing four of five people on board. As the Prime Minister Harper stated after the First Air crash in August 2011, Canada does not have the capability to respond to incidents in the Arctic. These comments should be the starting point for a complete rethink of how we deliver SAR capability across remote and northern Canada. Harper can use this opportunity to examine how Canada delivers such services based on a community model that fits into a national SAR plan. That way we create a mosaic that is strong and can respond to a wide variety of incidents.

In Canada, thousands of selfless professional volunteers are prepared to give of their time, and there are many world-class models to guide us. In the Coast Mountains ranges, north of Vancouver, the volunteer search team North Shore Rescue works closely with local law enforcement agencies including the West Vancouver Police Department and the RCMP to provide rescue services for snowboarders who get into danger (often out of bounds and usually near dusk) in the North Shore mountains. NSR utilizes a series of long line rescue techniques pioneered here, and with the Parks Canada Warden Service, using light commercial helicopters. This seamless approach works closely with Canadian Forces in particular – Comox’s 442 SAR Squadron provides a nimble and prompt SAR response. If these out of bounds snowboarders are not found within hours, the chances for survival diminish exponentially. The NSR partnership is of long standing and works like clockwork.

Yellowknife Crew on "Nick Martin"

In Quebec, the Second Ranger Patrol Group 2 CRPG, under the leadership of LCol   Marcel Chevarie  and his predecessor LCol Guy Lang with the full support of JTF (East) Commander BGeneral J. R. Giguere, has developed a robust search and rescue capability that can be used as a model in other locations. 2 CRPG patrol area is a massive region made up of  25 patrols that includes Nunavik,  the Bay James area, as well as the North Shore of Québec. The Canadian Rangers in 2 CRPG are often cross-hatted as firefighters, paramedics and fire chiefs, community leaders, commercial pilots – they have extensive knowledge of the local area. When you combine that with search techniques and enhanced air to ground communication, we develop a force multiplier for SAR at the community and Ranger Patrol level. Senior leaders of 2 CFPG held classroom training at Royal Military College St. Jean in December 2011. This was followed by a winter exercise on the East coast of Hudson Bay with 413 SAR squadron of Greenwood Nova Scotia (which included a C-130 Hercules with SARTECHs working closely with the Canadian Rangers) living on the land, building igloos, undertaking search rescue exercises, and practicing air to ground communications and search techniques. It was a great success for the Rangers and the SARTechs.

It is important to create a mechanism that will enhance the strength of local communities and build capacity. Given the size of our country, there is no one-size-fits-all solution;  we must closely examine potential risks circumstances in each region and types of risks that a community may be exposed to. We need to utilize all of these various capabilities to ensure effective and timely response to search and rescue incidents in the harsh Canadian landscape.

SAR Centre of Excellence
In my 2008 testimony before the Senate Standing committee on Fisheries and Oceans, which was examining the role of the Canadian Coast Guard, I proposed that a SAR center be established at 5 Wing Goose Bay Labrador to bring together ­various communities to work together on SAR capability and capacity in one place. The infrastructure and venue exists and is in workable condition.

The problem, as I see it, is that all the elements of SAR do not live in one place. This is not rocket science, it is accomplished by bringing people together. What we lack at present is a coming together to share common techniques and strategies across the North and near North to develop capacity and learn from one another. In a recent Edmonton Journal article on the Canadian Forces Northern Ram exercise, senior RCMP search and rescue expert Jack Kruger talked about the fact that the RCMP are often the first ones on the scene in remote communities. We need to build interest and expertise in a way that a Burton Winters situation never collapses again in the future.

Cambridge Bay Unit after Rescuing French Rower who had been caught in ice trying to transit the Northwest Passage.

By developping physical and virtual regimes and interaction protocols to share ideas, we build capability and capacity. People are our most important resource, they have the local knowledge that can be quickly integrated into a nimble and accurate search.

Rear Admiral Dave Gardam reported to the Commander Canada Command on the lack of response to the Winters predicament. This internal report highlighted existing protocols and explained that there has always been close cooperation between Ground SAR lead agencies and the JRCCs.

According to jurisdictional protocol, the Canadian Forces can only do what is asked, they are not the lead responder. It is important to realize that Ground SAR is a police responsibility and is treated as a missing persons matter under the Criminal Code of Canada. The Canadian Forces  can provide assets only at the request of the  lead agency. To ensure effective response, SAR communities need to get to know one another and create workarounds until overly rigid jurisdictional protocols can be updated to take into account the life-and-death nature of these situations.

After the First Air crash there was talk that CASARA would become more involved in search and rescue in the Canadian North using commercial and private aircraft. While that is a great idea, we need to firstly identify the potential risks and the relative assets around each of the communities. In many cases there are plenty of air assets but the operators are not trained in search techniques and the aircraft have no sensors. There needs to be a command and control function. This is a role that could be played by the Canadian Rangers operating in conjunction with Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary and CASARA under JRCC control. We see the good work being done by 2 CRPG in Quebec working with the KRG regional government and local police forces and Makivik Corporation. It really doesn't matter what hat an individual is wearing it's all about cooperation – building capacity and capability. For example Makivik Corporation, which owns Air Inuit, operate 15 Twin Otters aircraft in Nunavik. How much effort would it take to put sensors, FLIR cameras, bubble windows on some of their planes? Training the highly motivated Rangers of 2 CRPG to play a first responder search role would have a multitude of economic and social benefits while buttressing the existing Canadian Forces capability. We saw this in the recent January exercise and we see that happening daily with North Shore Rescue in British Columbia.

What is needed is to bring these assets and capabilities together. As  Lieutenant-General W. Semianiw  said in his 17 February 2012 letter reviewing the protocols after the Burton Winters incident:

“I would therefore recommend that the National SAR Secretariat take a leading role in engaging the Minister of Public Safety to ensure the roles responsibilities of the RA's for GSAR is reinforced through equally precise protocols. This effort would make it clear to all those responsible for GSAR are that it is her responsibility to attempt to secure community, regional provincial resources first that these are insufficient and then initiate requests for CF assistance”

This is a potentially role for the National SAR Secretariat which was set up after the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster off the coast of Newfoundland to bring thinking together thinking on SAR issues. The time is now past for thinking – we need action.

CCGA Small Craft Training off Hay River

Canada, with or without cooperation from the United States, needs to create a sustained center of search and rescue excellence where the best ideas and minds can work together in a proactive and productive environment that is not bogged down by jurisdictional restrictions to ensure that we can effectively access the vigorous SAR capability that our country requires. It is important to celebrate efficient ideas and embrace them in a cost-effective way. The concept of alternative service delivery needs to be put on the table. As Admiral Thad Allen said when he was Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, we have to have a “truth to power” discussion. We have to have the guts to identify issues and then move forward to make positive change. This includes people in our Arctic and coastal communities. One of the strands that have been underutilized is our Canadian Rangers.

This group is highly motivated and yearning for meaningful work to keep them out of the socio-economic depths so prevalent in native communities.

They are prepared to work hard. We can develop this mechanism but we need to move beyond concepts of force generation and work towards getting the job done. I have seen 2 CRPG firsthand in Nunavik and Quebec, and their SAR model is effective for the North. The Canadian Rangers give Canada a great capability and we need to encourage the leadership of Canada Command and all the other agencies in moving forward on this front. A community-led solution that is an integral part of a National SAR plan would seem to be the most effective.

We are going to see more and more GSAR incidents arising because of changes in sea ice in the Arctic. The land/sea-ice interface is considered a transportation route, so were going to see increasing incidents in the coming years as the older sea-ice weakens. As a country we need to be ready for that. This is not solely a Canadian Forces responsibility. In a country the size of Canada, there's no way we can have sufficient CF assets to cover the entire country. But we can increase community capability that will work seamlessly between the JRCCs as all interested parties cooperate for SAR incidents. Canadians need to work as a team and spend less time finger-pointing and more time creating a mechanism to respond efficiently to these increasing SAR incidents.

From a risk prevention standpoint, a greater emphasis on education and communicating information will be a useful. For the cost of fuel of one C-130 flight to the North, we can develop a robust education system around the changes in sea ice and what to do in a survival situation. Providing such information does not currently fall within the SAR responders responsibilities. We need to bring forward thinking on that. Get young Canadians interested in learning about this and becoming true partners in search and rescue and they will be on track to become great citizens of Canada in a changing North. The robust Junior Ranger program found throughout the North is a good place to start.

Small Craft Training

Recent SAR incidents have highlighted the need for Canada to have a robust search and rescue capability and clear thinking around the role of various agencies. This requires an all of government and community response. It is important to understand that search and rescue in Canada is split between a variety of different agencies and jurisdictions.

The recent grounding of the Costa Concordia off Italy could easily have happened in the much colder waters of the Canadian north and we need to be ready for such an event. This will take all our resources; it is a community response and an all of government responsibility. This article seeks encourage further discussion on this subject which is clearly required in Canada. Dialogue and the sharing of ideas and practices is key to a robust Arctic SAR capability. SAR starts at home. We owe it to Burton Winters and his family to get this right.

Joe Spears, the principal of the Horseshoe Bay Marine Group, recently delivered search and rescue lectures to 2 CRPG at RMC St Jean. Kjs@oceanlawcanada.com.
© FrontLine Defence 2012