For centuries, families in Newfoundland and Labrador have grieved for those who went to sea and didn’t come home.
The risk continues. Fishing is among the most deadly jobs in the country, and the dangers inherent in travelling to the offshore oil rigs were made clear in the 2009 helicopter crash that killed 17.
Against this backdrop, search and rescue (SAR) is never just about dollars and cents for people in the province. There has been heated debate and raucous protests about the appropriate level of protection. All of which explains why the controversial helicopter ride by Peter MacKay, the ranking political minister in Atlantic Canada, touches such a hot button.
“In the context of cutbacks to basic [rescue]services, that’s pretty hard to swallow,” said Earle McCurdy, president of the Fish, Food and Allied Workers union. “Since 1973 there’s been 193 Newfoundlanders lost their lives in the fishery.”
Search and rescue for the province is handled out of a central location in Gander, where 103 Squadron gets twice the national average of distress calls. There, approximately 50 military personnel and 26 civilians, a unit that calls itself “Outcasts” and features on its badge a rescue dog named Albert, operate three Cormorant CH-149 helicopters.
Each of these choppers – the same type that fetched Mr. MacKay – can carry 12 stretchers and operate in icy conditions. A base spokesman could not be reached Friday afternoon, but the squadron’s website speaks proudly of covering “the lower Arctic, the Maritimes, Newfoundland and Labrador and all offshore waters in the region,” with round-the-clock capability.
But dissenting locals argue that the base is too far from the busy waters off the southeast part of the province, and that overnight response time is sub-par.
Military standards require that SAR crews be airborne within 30 minutes of receiving a call that comes in on a weekday, between 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. But the rest of the time they have two hours to get in the air. The latter standard falls below international norms and, given that work at sea doesn’t necessarily align with office hours, has sparked much criticism about a two-tier system.
Also controversial are federal government plans to close a rescue sub-centre in St. John’s that assists with co-ordination and communication and provides local knowledge. Ottawa has said repeatedly that this is merely an efficiency, but locals fear a reduction of service quality.