Arctic SAR Agreement

15 September 2011

In May 2011, Canada and the other seven members of the Arctic Council nations signed an international Arctic Search and Rescue (SAR) agreement. It calls on the signatory nations to solidify cooperation, collaboration and research on Arctic SAR. This year has seen the amount of sea ice decrease almost to the record shattering 2007 levels when the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean Basin was the least is ever been since meteorological records have been maintained. With actual statistics outpacing the climate model predictions, there is no argument that sea-ice is getting thinner and multi-year ice is melting.

This lack of sea-ice opens the Arctic to increased economic and tourism activity, and shipping in particular. It is both a problem and an opportunity, with implications for all Arctic Nations. For instance, during the 2011 shipping season, there were over 90 ­foreign flag vessels operating in and around Russia’s NE Sea Route.

With the number of passenger flights increasing, new mineral exploration and hydrocarbon development taking place, plus increased cruise vessel activities, there is clearly an expanded requirement for Arctic search and rescue capability around the Arctic Ocean Basin. This was reflected in the speed by which the international agreement was reached.

The diminishing and thinning sea ice has also created a situation where the traditional use of sea ice for winter travel and hunting has led to incidents. The local population, highly experienced in ­traveling on sea-ice, are finding the ice is not adhering to previous norms and they have been accidentally breaking through ice which traditionally allowed movement at those times of year. Interestingly, the Inuit have always considered the land and the sea-ice as one unit. This generates SAR incidents. In one 2008 case in Hudson’s Bay near Digges Island, off Nunavik, six experienced caribou hunters from the village of Ivujivik went through the ice on their snowmobiles in a place where, traditionally, the waters should have been frozen at that time of the year. In that case, Adami Mangiuk, now a Nunivak elder and member of the Makivik Corporation’s Board of Directors, was instrumental in ­rescuing the hunters. Time-honoured skills of harpooning and a rope toss, passed down from generation to ­generation, helped Adami save the men in the near darkness off Digges Sound.

These Arctic SAR issues are real. They exist at the local, regional national and international level. All of the countries recognize the current lack of SAR capability, including the United States. The Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, Admiral Papp, freely admits the lack of U.S. capability that exists for Arctic search and rescue. The USCG presently only has one icebreaker available, the research vessel USCGC Healey. At a recent Arctic conference in Russia, President Putin announced that his country would ­create new SAR bases and the construction of icebreakers for  the development of the NE sea route which goes along the top of Russia.

As part of implementing the international agreement, Canada hosted an Arctic Council Search and Rescue Table Top Exercise in Whitehorse on 5 and 6 October 2011. This is the first of a series of international exercises. The event brought all of the eight member countries to participate in the exercise and share strategic and operational information on Arctic SAR. Canada Command coordinated the aeronautical and marine SAR effort at the international level.

In the Canadian Arctic, Arctic SAR needs to be expanded to include the local regional and national levels. The National SAR Secretariat has been working on an Arctic SAR strategy at the policy level, but this needs to be expanded into an operational local, regional and national approach.

Dialogue Needed
This international Arctic SAR agreement has focused attention on these developing obligations. However, we first need to look closely at our SAR capability within Canada which will now become linked to these international obligations. That discussion has not yet taken place, and clearly needs to occur. The ever increasing number of cruise ships navigating in Canadian Arctic waters potentially creates a challenging mass casualty situation yet there is no legal requirement to alert the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centres of the routes or schedules of these vessels.

The potential for catastrophic, though low-probability, incidents occurring in the Arctic has been dismissed by planners as unimportant. However, low-probability accidents happen and we need to be better prepared. For instance, during the annual Canadian Forces’ Operation Nanook, which has been growing in scope and magnitude each year, a 737-200C combo jet aircraft owned by First Air, a northern-based company with controlling interest held by Makivik Corporation, crashed attempting to land in heavy fog at Resolute Bay. The incident that everyone hoped would never happen – a jet crashing in the Arctic – had occurred, with a loss of 12 lives. An Op Nanook radio crackled with “No Duff” to indicate this was no drill but the real thing – a heavy jet was down in the Arctic. Canadian Rangers, augmented by the other members of the Canadian Forces, RCMP and other government agencies responded quickly – including, ironically, Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigators who were taking part in a simulated aircraft investigation. Three people miraculously survived the complete disintegration of the aircraft. With 15 minutes, they received emergency medical attention, were triaged and sent by C-17 aircraft (quickly reconfigured to became a medical emergency flight) with personnel from 435 SAR Squadron from Trenton.

It was a miracle that this 737 crash had occurred at Resolute Bay. At any other time or any other Northern location, any who may have survived the initial impact would have been waiting for up to 14 hours before help arrived from Canadian Forces’ SAR resources based in Southern Canada to arrive on scene. That is not to say a response could not have been mobilized from northern Canada with local volunteers. Our Joint Rescue Coordination Centre controllers at Victoria, Trenton and Halifax, and the important subcentres at Quebec City and St. John’s, are equipped to ensure all available resources will respond to an incident. These increasingly include the Canadian Rangers in the Arctic.

The fact remains that there are no federal ­dedicated SAR assets located in the North.

The Prime Minister, who was traveling to Resolute Bay to view Operation Nanook at the time, was quoted in journalist Chris Wattie’s report from Nunavut:

“Deployment of full emergency resources across Canada’s North is impossible, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said Tuesday after meeting with rescue workers who responded to a fatal plane crash last weekend.

“Part of the drill here is how quickly things can be moved up and deployed from the south as well,” said Harper, who is on his sixth annual summer tour of the region.
“We have to be realistic. There is no possible way in the vastness of the Canadian Arctic we could ever have all of the resources necessary close by. It’s just impossible.”
Is that really the case? Is that the best we can do as a nation? Is it really impossible? Prime Minister Harper was quoted in the past as saying “we either use it or lose it,” referring to the Arctic. The same can be applied to search and rescue – if we don’t develop capability in the North, we will lose lives, both foreign and domestic.

Canada now has international legal obligations to provide a basic level of SAR service. And this responsibility extends right to the North Pole.

We have to meet basic levels of service that are comparable at least to what the other Arctic nations provide – especially if we are going to use a robust SAR response to exert our sovereignty in the Arctic.

Canada needs to develop the competencies and capability to project SAR out into the Arctic Ocean Basin to be able to assist other Arctic nations. This will take a great deal of effort but is necessary to fulfill our obligations.

When it comes to search and rescue – does it make a difference if it is domestic or international SAR? I don’t think so, but we need to have this discussion. We owe it to the survivors and victims of that crash.

It is important to do an internal lessons learned analysis before we look at what our international obligations are. We need to create a robust and resilience SAR response which is inclusive of the North communities and the potential secondary assets SAR that exist in the North. We need to closely examine what other Arctic nations are doing with respect to service delivery and response times.

We need to examine all options in the North and empower the northern communities through a variety of creative means. Canadians have never shied away from solving a problem. We need to discuss these issues openly and frankly. SAR needs to be a cornerstone of our Northern Strategy. 

Leading Seaman Krysta Montreuil, Fleet Diving Unit Atlantic, helps her team climb onto an iceberg that will be used as a diving platform for Canadian military and U.S. Coast Guard divers during Operation Nanook 11.

A strong SAR response at the local, regional and provincial level will buttress Canada’s international obligations and can empower Canada Command to increase SAR capability and capacity in the Arctic. Canada can lead the way with an integrated SAR model at the next international exercise and build on the October International Table Top Exercise in Whitehorse.

Prime Minister Harper may be right – it may be impossible to have full emergency response – but we can develop a made-in-Canada solution that will be the envy of the world. Our country is founded on action and we can make this a reality. Good ideas come to fruition when we have ­dialogue and lively debate around a wide variety and combination of options.

The Governor General of Canada, David Johnston, also the commander-in-chief of the Canadian Forces, recently gave a speech supporting the important role of volunteers in Canada (which he has made a priority). The GG reportedly stated that Canada has a different sense of volunteering than other countries – a deeply entrenched history of volunteering that stems from pioneer days when settlers couldn’t survive without the help of their neighbours.

Canadian military divers and United States Coast Guard members wait on an iceberg in Resolute Bay, Nunavut, for the remainder of their team to arrive by a Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat (RHIB) during Operation NANOOK 11.(Photo credit: Sgt Norm McLean)

In the search and rescue community, volunteers play a critical role. The training of these volunteer professionals has often been more recently updated than the paid professionals who call them in to assist. In the North, volunteers are often the first to respond. Without that kind of speed, search subjects can seldom survive long enough for help to arrive from southern Canada.

We have seen recently, in British Columbia and the Yukon, the important role the volunteer Canadian Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA) search group plays in lengthy aviation searches by providing aircraft and spotters.

The seamless interaction between ­volunteers and Canadian Forces SAR techs and air crews works well and serves as a surge capability for the Canada Forces – plus it allows Canada to provide SAR services on a cost-effective basis. It is a system that works, and Canadians need to learn more about these dedicated volunteers who are willing give of their time and countless hours of private aircraft time so that others may live. It is worth mentioning that the volunteer Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary is not yet present in the Arctic.

We also need to examine alternative service delivery and consider how that could work in the North. This starts with discussion and dialogue. Given our international legal obligations, we can no longer accept the fact that the level of SAR service delivery is adequate in the Arctic. This is especially obvious with the expanded and increased SAR capability that Russia has just announced.

Canadians should not wait for another disaster to start this discussion This vast land surrounded by big oceans will be safer and stronger if we can build this capability and capacity, and we must. We owe it to the First Air crash victims and survivors to have this discussion and make it a reality. It can be known as the First Air International Arctic SAR doctrine on cooperation and collaboration.
Joe Spears is the principal of HBMG.
Reach him at kjs@oceanlawcanada.com

Operation NANOOK 11 is a two-part operation. The first part is a sovereignty and presence patrolling operation employing the Canadian Forces in the air, on land and at the sea as well as international partners from the United States and Denmark. The second part of Operation NANOOK 11 is a Canadian whole-of-government exercise that includes a simulated major air disaster and a simulated maritime emergency exercise. 

Operation NANOOK 11 is the centerpiece of three major sovereignty operations conducted annually by the Canadian Forces in Canada’s North. Exercising Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is a priority area of Canada’s Northern Strategy and such operations enable the Canadian Forces to demonstrate its ability to operate effectively in the challenging environment of Canada’s North. 

© FrontLine Defence 2011