I started writing this column on Remembrance Day last fall, while thinking of Janick Gilbert. Sgt. Gilbert, a SAR tech with 424 Squadron, had died on the job two weeks prior in the icy Arctic waters near Igloolik, Nunavut.
The “job,” being what Sgt. Gilbert, his fellow Canadian Forces SAR techs, Coast Guard rescue specialists and hundreds of highly skilled volunteer search-and-rescue specialists train to do, is indeed a dangerous one. Simply put: they save lives – on a daily basis from sea to sea to sea across this country and all the places and spaces in between. They are the backbone of search and rescue in Canada: the thin line between those who live and those who die. All too often, we, as a nation, take them for granted.
The CBC’s Fifth Estate opened its current season with a show entitled “Mayday,” a supposed investigation of “Canada’s troubled search and rescue fleet.” The investigation involved a handful of high-profile events including the Cougar S-92 crash. In short, however, there seemed to be a genuine mystery in their inability to grasp the staffing levels of the search-and-rescue squadrons and what that meant in terms of crew scheduling and the response times that flow from that scheduling.
In the days following the death of Sgt. Gilbert, there were mumblings and musings in the mainstream media about the “delay” in the SAR response to the initial incident of the overdue hunters. Yet, there was no apparent understanding of how any SAR incident evolves, and specifically, no grasp of the logistics in this particular event. Local resources, such as those that existed, were assigned to investigate the two overdue walrus hunters. When conditions prevented locals from mounting a response, a SAR Hercules was dispatched from Winnipeg, followed by a second Hercules (carrying Sgt. Gilbert) from Trenton and a Cormorant from Gander.
Think about this for a moment – the time and distance required for these three aircraft from three widely separated points to converge on one tiny spot far, far away, was significant. This is something the mainstream media seems unwilling or unable to grasp. On the sunniest day of the year, at the height of summer, this trip would be a major undertaking for any one of these three aircraft. For all three of them to respond in a coordinated effort under the conditions that existed on this day is almost beyond comprehension.
Here’s a word about “response,” based on a lifetime of working in the universe that includes your local police, fire and EMS first responders. Media accounts of local events will breathlessly recount how responders “raced” to the scene. In reality, however, there is no racing. Your local fire department and ambulance service understand that to provide the best possible outcome for all involved, it is imperative they get there as quickly as possible, fully prepared to provide service. Crashing en route because they were overdriving their environment is not an option. Crashing en route does two things – it means no one gets to the original incident and it creates a second incident that could be far worse than the original.
The difference between your local fire department and a SAR response such as that at Igloolik is the scale. Urban fire departments in Canada generally have an emergency response time of four to five minutes in their service model, with response distances under two kilometres. Igloolik required two Hercs to fly between 2,300 and 2,500 kilometres and the Cormorant from Gander to fly 2,700 kilometres under less-than-ideal conditions. It’s completely the other end of the emergency response scale and an incredible testament to the aircraft and the people on board – and that’s only half of it. Once the SAR techs leave the Herc, how do you retrieve them and those they went after?
It’s something I never considered until I was being briefed by the SAR CO at 1 CDN Air Division in Winnipeg last year – and the colonel spoke to this very scenario. In one of those true “duh” moments, (all too frequent in my life) I realized that once the SAR techs leave the aircraft in these scenarios, there is no other way out than by helicopter.
That’s just one segment of the Canadian SAR scene. It’s a big country and a big responsibility – and the people who do the job are stretched as thin and as tight as a drumhead. The father and son that Sgt. Gilbert set out to rescue were simply trying to live their lives as thousands of others do every day in this country – by going to work in harsh and unforgiving environments, whether in the high north or far out at sea.
Let us not forget Janick Gilbert and all those who have died so that others may live.
Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.
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