Canada lags other countries on emergency response times: MP, union lawyer

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ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - Fifteen minutes versus two hours: that's the stark gap between Canada's search-and-rescue response standards and those of other countries, says NDP defence critic Jack Harris.
At an inquiry into helicopter safety off Newfoundland, the St. John's MP asked a senior defence official Thursday about global response times.
But Col. Paul Drover said he didn't know how fast emergency aircraft in other countries are to be off the ground after a call for help.
The probe was called after Cougar Flight 491 crashed into the North Atlantic about 60 kilometres east of St. John's last March. Seventeen of 18 people aboard were killed.
A backup Cougar helicopter rushed to the scene while military search-and-rescue choppers normally based in Gander, N.L., made their way from Nova Scotia. All three of the big Cormorant helicopters were training that day near Sydney, N.S.
It took the Cougar crew about an hour to reach sole survivor Robert Decker because the helicopter had to have seats removed and a rescue winch installed. The former weather observer battled injury and hypothermia as he floated in the frigid sea in a leaking survival suit.
In Norway and in the North Sea, emergency aircraft must be in the air 15 minutes after an emergency call, Harris told reporters outside the inquiry. In Ireland, the standard is 15 minutes between 7 a.m. and 9 p.m., and 45 minutes after that.
The response time in Australia and for the U.S. Coast Guard is 30 minutes, 24-hours a day, Harris said.
Yet the military standard in Canada is 30 minutes between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. on weekdays, and two hours at other times.
"You know, the elements don't get quiet after 4 o'clock in the afternoon," Harris said.
"This two-hour response time, even though they do manage to get an average of 70 minutes, it's too long.
"Time is of the essence, as we all know. And the distances that are involved in the Newfoundland and Labrador coast are clearly significant. Getting in the air is only part of getting to the action.
"There are standards elsewhere that are much more proficient than ours and much more robust than ours. And I hope that, as a result of this inquiry, we may see a new standard being set."
Randell Earle, lawyer for the union representing about 700 offshore workers, said it's up to federal politicians to ensure enough funding.
"The Department of National Defence operates within fiscal constraints that are set by the government of Canada," he said outside the inquiry.
"They're doing the best they can with the resources they have. It's up to the politicians to allocate the resources so that we have the level of service we need here."
Oil companies that profit handsomely from the offshore could spend more on backup contracts with Cougar, Earle said.
"Cougar right now is operating on a one-hour time for wheels up," after an emergency call, he said outside the inquiry.
"It took them 45 minutes essentially for them to get up on March 12.
"They should be in a position where they don't have to take the seats out. They should be in a position where they don't have to install the (rescue) winch. These are changes that have to be made."
Harris, a former lawyer, has standing at the inquiry. He also asked Drover why military choppers were away on training when the Cougar flight went down.
Drover said emergency response wasn't undermined by the fact that three Cormorants based in Gander were two hours away instead of one.
"We had the Halifax search-and-rescue region, the standby posture was in place so we did not reduce our capability at any time during that training exercise," said Drover. "It was just a function of the location."
Harris said it's tough to square Drover's comment with the military's own admission that it took twice as long for Cormorants to reach the disaster scene from Cape Breton as it would have from Gander.
Maj. Denis McGuire confirmed in the days after the tragedy that the choppers arrived in two hours instead of one.
Newfoundland's oil industry employs about 3,400 people onshore and off, with about 700 people working offshore on any given day.
The 16 passengers aboard the Cougar helicopter were heading to the Hibernia and Sea Rose sites more than 300 kilometres east of St. John's.
Drover testified that the entire Atlantic region must be covered and it's impossible to predict where an emergency might happen.
He said he didn't know whether Cougar Helicopters was informed that military choppers would be two hours away instead of one that day.
The inquiry led by Commissioner Robert Wells was called to help ensure offshore helicopter travel is as safe as possible.
Its mandate does not include the intense debate over whether a 24-hour search and rescue chopper should be based in St. John's, which is closer to the offshore rigs than Gander.

Organizations: U.S. Coast Guard, Department of National Defence, Halifax Hibernia Sea Rose

Geographic location: Canada, ST. JOHN'S, Newfoundland and Labrador Gander North Atlantic Nova Scotia Sydney Norway North Sea Ireland Australia Cape Breton Atlantic

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