Canada's search-and-rescue in fragile state, auditor finds

OTTAWA — The Globe and Mail

File photo: Auditor-General Michael Ferguson speaks during a news conference on the release of his report in Ottawa October 23, 2012. (CHRIS WATTIE/REUTERS)

Key elements of Canada’s search-and-rescue capabilities are nearing a breaking point and need urgent attention in order to provide continued service to people in distress across the land, the Auditor-General has found.

Saying “significant improvements” are quickly needed, Auditor-General Michael Ferguson called on the government to acquire new search-and-rescue aircraft, hire and train more personnel and modernize the information management system that is used during the dangerous operations.

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The federal government oversees one of the world’s largest areas of search-and-rescue (SAR) responsibility, with 18 million square kilometres of land and water, with often challenging weather and geographic conditions. The Auditor-General said that as things currently stand, the Canadian Forces and the Canadian Coast Guard have managed to “adequately respond” to the incidents that have come their way, but that the situation is extremely fragile.

“We are very concerned about the sustainability of search and rescue in coming years,” he said.

One of the biggest problems facing SAR operations is a lack of appropriate aircraft, after a number of delays in the acquisition of new airplanes to replace aging fleets of Hercules C-130s and Buffalos.

According to the Auditor-General, the Buffalos will need costly new engines after 2015, and the Hercules “are not equipped with sensors and data management systems found on modern SAR airplanes.”

“National Defence has not sufficiently replaced and has had difficulty maintaining its SAR aircraft at the level necessary to respond to SAR incidents effectively,” the report said.

The Auditor-General raised concerns over the state of the Search and Rescue Mission Management System, used jointly by Canadian Forces and the Coast Guard from the moment a call comes in to the end of an operation. The system is “nearing its breaking point,” having already undergone a major failure in April, 2009. According to the report, the government still has no plan to “cover the gap” until the arrival of a new system in 2015-2016.

“The aircraft is quite old, the information system that we identified was not considered to be a mission-critical system to National Defence so there was no system owner, there was no ongoing (information technology) report,” Mr. Ferguson told reporters.

If there was strong governance and a strong plan, then some of these issues could have been dealt with, he said.

But “there is no overall framework, no overall strategy related to search and rescue,” said Mr. Ferguson. “And there have been many times when that has been called for.”

Both the Coast Guard and the Air Force suffer from personnel shortages, especially among pilots and flight engineers. In addition, training of new personnel is affected by a low availability of aircraft.

The Coast Guard aims to have its SAR vessels react within 30 minutes of a distress call, while the Canadian Forces want their aircraft to depart within 30 minutes of a call during business hours on weekdays, and within two hours during evenings and weekends.

The Coast Guard meets its standard 96 per cent of the time, and the Canadian Air Force meets its standard 85 per cent of the time, the Auditor-General has found. However, it urged the Canadian Forces to expand their peak coverage beyond the current 8 a.m.-to-4 p.m. range.

“Current readiness standards were set using the resources available rather than a needs analysis,” the report said. “If standards continue to be based on available resources, and this capacity declines, this will result in a reduction of readiness standards and service levels.”

The report added that both the Coast Guard and the Canadian Forces already adjust their coverage to deal with busier periods of the year, such as fishing season.

The Auditor-General also looked at the operation of a number of other programs and uncovered significant deficiencies. Among other things, he found:

  • There is insufficient security governing private contractors that are hired to do work for the government and some departments, in particular National Defence, need to improve their practices to ensure that security requirements are met before contracts are awarded.
  • The government does not sufficiently determine whether the money it gives to aid agencies to provide assistance to the world’s poor meets two of its three major priorities – taking into account the perspectives of the poor and being consistent with international human rights standards. Government reports to Parliament about that spending are unclear and, at times, inaccurate.
  • The Public Health Agency of Canada receives $18-million a year for the Canadian Diabetes Strategy which was established in 1999 and renewed in 2005. But, in all those years, a national approach to diabetes has not been established. There are no priorities, deliverables, timelines or performance measures.
  • The Human Resources department uses various methods to find money it has overpaid to recipients of employment insurance but has done limited monitoring of their effectiveness and may be missing opportunities to recoup additional tens of millions of dollars each year.

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