Commissioner Robert Wells, the head of an inquiry into offshore helicopter safety, has came out before his own final report has been tabled, noting the need for better rescue capabilities to be put in place immediately.

He has recommended a temporary halt to night flights and faster emergency response times. (Wells’ inquiry is looking to the March 2009 crash of a helicopter  on its way to oil platform off St. John’s–17 people died).

“The issue about which I am now writing has for several weeks been a growing concern for me,” Wells wrote in a letter to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. “However, the evidence which I have heard at the inquiry during the past two weeks causes me to believe it is a matter requiring immediate attention. A full-time, dedicated and fully equipped response helicopter ready to go in 15 or 20 minutes is what is needed in St. John’s and needed as quickly as possible,”

From Sue Bailey of the Canadian Press:

“One of the early recommendations from Wells spurred the federal-provincial offshore regulator to press energy companies for a fully equipped rescue chopper on standby in St. John’s whenever workers fly.Wells wrote in a letter to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board dated Monday that emergency response provided from St. John’s “does not meet the highest standards.”

Offshore workers in the North Sea and other parts of the world can count on response times of 15 to 30 minutes, he wrote.

“There are no doubt longer response times, but a window of 15 to 30 minutes is, I believe, an acceptable standard.

“If a helicopter is forced to ditch in our waters, the life expectancy of survivors is limited, even with the best immersion or flotation suits and the best training,” he wrote.”

Will this change Canadian Forces SAR posture or will the government let private industry take the lead?

Now, for background information, below is what I wrote on Defence Watch in November, 2008:

The positioning of Canadian Forces search and rescue aircraft as well as the speed in which SAR crews respond continues to be an ongoing issue for some of those who make their living at sea or in the remote areas of the country.

Laurie Sullivan, the owner of a Newfoundland-based fishing vessel which sank in September, has criticized the fact that a SAR helicopter was not based in St. John’s to assist in responding to emergencies in the North Atlantic. Two crew members from the fishing ship died in that incident.

The recent rescue of an Inuit teenager on an ice floe in the North has also raised questions about whether more SAR assets should be based in the Arctic while other have in the past suggested that the Air Force should increase its SAR posture to a 30-minute continuous readiness posture.

Defence Watch has obtained a report on that issue, with the Air Force firmly coming out against a 24/7 30-minute readiness.

The current position is that when tasked, an aircraft must be airborne within 30 minutes during normal working hours and within two hours during all remaining quiet hours, according to the Air Force.

Unlike the two-hour SAR posture where crews and technicians hold a recall standby away from the squadron, a 30-minute SAR posture requires aircrews remain poised to launch from the flight line.

A 30-minute SAR posture is too expensive and would provide little benefit, according to The Canadian Forces Search and Rescue 30-minute Continuous Readiness Posture Force Generation Analysis obtained by Defence Watch.

An analysis of incidents between the years 2000-2004 determined that had a 30-minute posture been in effect on a 24/7 basis, “only a small increase in the probability of victim survival would have been gained by adopting a 30-minute posture.”

To reach the increased level of readiness would add more maintenance, require more aircraft and infrastructure upgrades, the report noted. According to the Air Force it would cost $387 million in extra capital costs and $540 million in overall annual recurring costs.

The Air Force also concluded that the timeline to achieve the enhanced posture would likely require six to eight years.

The end result is that the status quo will be maintained well into the future.

In January 2008, DND’s Chief of Review Services examined SAR and concluded the Canadian Forces “component of SAR operations functions quite well and remains highly relevant.”

That conclusion, however, will likely not be accepted by some of those who have called for improvements.

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  1. Jonathan Says:

    If I am not mistaken, the result of the Wells report got the Federal Regulator to “press for a fully equipped rescue chopper on standby in St. John’s whenever workers fly”. I would intuit that having CF based SAR on fulltime “30 minute” readiness would be hugely inefficient compared to having dedicated equipment available specifically when O&G transports are flying, even -I would venture to say- if the Canadian taxpayer had to foot the bill for this dedicated service. I can imagine that CF would be reluctant to change their stance.

    Tagentially related to this article, I only hope the politicians and/or the bureaucrats get their act together on providing the new long overdue FWSAR equipment to truly keep Canadian SAR relevant (be it contracted, or Coast Guard, or CF, or Italian-made, Spanish, Canadian, or whatever).

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