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Jan. 28, 2010, St. John's N.L. – The Defence Department's head of search and rescue policy says at least one military chopper is on 24-hour standby in Gander, N.L. to rush to emergencies.


January 28, 2010
By Sue Bailey | The Canadian Press

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Jan. 28, 2010, St. John's N.L. – The Defence Department's head of search and rescue policy says at least one military chopper is on 24-hour standby in Gander, N.L. to rush to emergencies.

But Col. Paul Drover didn't mention in his testimony to an inquiry into offshore helicopter safety why every Cormorant chopper was away on training in Cape Breton last March 12, when Cougar Flight 491 plunged into the sea off Newfoundland, killing 17 of 18 people aboard.

Outside the inquiry, New Democrat MP Jack Harris noted the discrepancy.

"Response time, how fast you can get to where the incident is the key in survival,'' he told reporters.

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"And if you're going to say that it's OK to move to Nova Scotia and be that much further away, then obviously response time isn't being given the first priority. So that's obviously something that I think needs to change.''

Harris, who is the NDP's defence critic, said the workers who take 90-minute flights to offshore sites more than 300 kilometres east of St. John's deserve better.

The industry employs about 3,400 people onshore and off, with about 700 people working offshore on any given day.

"They're out there making a living for their families," Harris said. "They deserve a level of security and protection second to none. And I don't think they're getting that."

A back-up Cougar helicopter rushed to the aid of sole survivor Robert Decker, but first it had to be retrofitted for the rescue mission. By that time, the badly injured former weather observer was hypothermic, in shock and delirious.

Drover testified that quick response is critical in any disaster, but survival skills and equipment are crucial because a rescue takes time.

The military's response standard allows for a window of 30 minutes to two hours from the time a call is received to when rescuers are airborne.

A number of factors must be considered in response times, including distance and weather, Drover stressed.

"In just about all cases it's not realistic to assume that as soon as an incident occurs a rescue will be available. There's going to be some time."

The Transportation Safety Board is still investigating why the pilots lost oil pressure in the main gearbox of the doomed Sikorsky S-92A before it went down.

The inquiry by commissioner Robert Wells was called in an effort to ensure offshore helicopter travel is as safe as possible.

But it's not up to Wells to lay blame or enter the thorny debate on whether a 24-hour military search and rescue helicopter should be based in St. John's.

The union that represents offshore workers, along with opposition MPs, have called for exactly that.

But federal government and military officials say the current search-and-rescue base in Gander, about 200 kilometres northwest of St. John's in central Newfoundland, is the best option.

The Defence Department wasn't going to take part in the inquiry until Harris and other critics pushed to have a spokesman attend.

Harris, a former lawyer who has standing at the probe, said he planned to challenge Drover on why military policy allows all search-and-rescue choppers to leave the Gander base at once.

Drover said three Cormorants are normally based there.

Harris said military emergency response gives disaster victims the best chance.

"If they're there, in a fast way, the people who can provide the maximum best service, that can provide the greatest survivability are the Canadian Forces (search and rescue) techs on the scene, with the kind of equipment that they have. That's the best that I've seen so far, and I think it's a world-class service.''

The federal government or the oil companies, or both, must pay to bolster rescue services, Harris said.

Drover is scheduled for two days of testimony to outline the military's search and rescue role.

The department responded to almost 9,100 search and rescue incidents in all regions in 2008, Drover said. As of November, the Gander base had completed 90 missions in 2009.

The fully equipped rescue choppers would have arrived at the scene in about one hour instead of two had they lifted off from Gander, Maj. Denis McGuire said at the time.

Still, he insisted the exercise off Nova Scotia did not compromise the military's ability to cover its Atlantic search and
rescue area.

McGuire also dismissed suggestions that one of the Newfoundland-based choppers should have been left behind in Gander.


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