11 February 2011

If only…

One of the most tragic and despicable beliefs to come out of the Cougar 491 crash in 2009 is that the outcome might have been different except for search and rescue service in Canada.

These days, politicians and others are latching onto is something they call “response time”.  Now we’ll get back to that term in a minute but let us establish right from the outset that the most recent version of the search and rescue belief, whether from a grieving family member or a politician, is rooted firmly in the claim that search and rescue helicopters made the difference or could have made or will in the future make all the difference,  “if only…”.

That basic idea has been there from the beginning:  if only a helicopter from the Canadian Forces had been in St. John’s then more people might have been saved that day. If only the squadron -  or a helicopter – had been in St. John’s, then more might have been saved.  If only search and rescue didn’t have two different response times, then things would have been different.

The Transportation Safety Board report issued Wednesday is the most thorough and technically proficient examination of the crash to date. It identifies 16 factors that contributed to the disaster.  Altering any one of them may have saved lives.

Not one of the factors identified was search and rescue “response” time or anything else related to search and rescue helicopters.

There’s a reason for that.

There is not now nor has there ever been a single shred of evidence that anything – absolutely anything -  related to search and rescue response would have made the slightest bit of difference in this case or one comparable to it.

This brings us back to the idea of response time.  People are using that term to mean the time it takes a helicopter crew to receive an order to go, to board the aircraft, warm up, do pre-flight checks and then launch the aircraft from the airport where it is. 

That’s really “launch time”.  Right now 103 Squadron in Gander launches within 30 minutes during daytime working hours and up to 120 minutes at other times.  In practice, the launch time is much lower during “off hours”.

What people with the SAR fixation need to realise is that in order to deliver a response time of 30 minutes (as they are demanding), Canada would have to spend every penny of public money and even then there’d be no guarantee it could deliver that response time in all cases at all times.

You see, response time is really about the distance from the helicopter or ship to the incident. 

Take a look at any map of Canada and the surrounding ocean and you’ll get an idea of the magnitude of that demand and why it is ludicrous. Just think how many ships, helicopters and crews would it take to have someone ready at any given location with 30 minutes of a crash, all day long, all year long.

That’s what a 30 minute response time means.

And if you want to talk about 30 minute launch time you can understand that the Canadian Forces currently hits that time to launch helicopters more often than not.  Even after normal working hours, the sorts of launch times are not – apparently – trending toward that extreme time of 120 minutes.

Families whose loved ones died in a tragedy can be understood for their beliefs and their actions both as a natural part of grief and out of a human desire to ensure no one else feels the sort of soul-wrenching pain they have endured. Theirs is tragic belief in ever sense of the word tragedy

But for others, for the politicians and journalists, the ones who, even inadvertently, feed the belief in falsehood despite all the evidence, it isn’t so easy to find any generosity for them.

And the men and women who provide search and rescue service across Canada when the rest of us are fat and happy in our cozy beds?

They can only look in amazement at the ignorant critics, shake their heads and mutter how much better off we’d all be “if only…” as they head back to do their duty.

- srbp -



Ursula said...

My husband retired fron the Canadian Forces as a Search and Rescue Pilot .

The day of Crash 491 was a day that brought back many memories .

Calls came at any hour of the day , 3:00 AM ,2:00 pm . The rush of dressing ,packing bags ,hurried meals ,and the deep fear at what would be found at the end of the journey .

Absolutely nothing like that felt by the families of the many tragedies ,but , their was also elation when everything went well .

There can be no such thing as a typical S&R .Each one is different in almost every respect . Each flight is custom-tailored to meet the weather , time of day , location , range and nature of rescue .

The crews have to make a lot of judgement calls and make them quickly , usually they only get one chance to get it right .

One death is too many, and each member deals with that in their own way .

Canada's S&R has some of the finest and most dedicated men and women serving in our military .

These people are professionals and they do Canada proud .

Peter said...

You're quite right, of course. Anyone who believes faster S&R would have made any difference in Cougar Fl491 is blissfully unaware of the facts.
But you're a little cavalier about the big issue revisited in last week's testimony to the parliamentary committee. Evenings and weekends, launch time can be FOUR TIMES that of waking weekday hours. That's at least a two-hour wait for those silly enough to end up in the drink past 4 p.m. That may be good enough for Metrobus. Not for Search and Rescue.

Edward Hollett said...


Thanks so much providing such a brilliant caricature of exactly the sort of argument I was describing as being ill-informed and fundamentally despicable.

I don't know anyone who could have written a more biting and sarcastic a version of it right down to the absurd metaphor of SAR and Metrobus.

People accuse me of being the nasty, miserable prick, Peter but I certainly don't have the balls to attack people the way you did.

Well done!

Peter said...

Explain, please?

Peter said...

I find the constant blaming of specific tragedies on SAR is in poor taste, too. But I find your dogged adherence to the status quo even more annoying. I don't know what your bugaboo is (some earlier study you participated in, perhaps) but the idea NOTHING can be done to improve SAR is ridiculous.
I don't lean towards moving it to St. John's. The difference in flying time is negligible given all the other contingencies. It is centralized where it is, and Cougar's already proved that private sector plays an important role anyway.
But a potential two-hour launch time? What's the point? This is the North Atlantic.
Yes, Ed, SAR can be tweaked. It's not perfect. Get over yourself.

Edward Hollett said...

Peter: If you bother read my previous posts on this subject, you will know that I have made suggestions for a significant change to SAR on the east coast both in deployment and capacity.

That is about as far from the status quo as one could get. For whatever reason you seem to be attacking your own fictitious version of what I am writing. It's amusing for those of us reading it but beyond that, do you find it personally very useful a way to go about making a comment?

You make a big deal out of the policy that says launches may take up to 120 mins during so-called quiet hours. What is the actual experience at 103 squadron? You will find it is under 60 mins.

So guess what?

The government can announce a reduction to 60 minutes as a target with a goal of eventually getting it to 30.

Everyone can cheer.

Job done.

or we can get it to 30 minutes and everyone will cheer, despite the fact it is the transit or response time (from launch to scene) that really matters.

Is it really so hard for you to appreciate that the 30 minutes argument is completely meaningless, especially since your chief point (the 120 mins) is way longer than it actually takes in practice?

Evidently so.

Peter said...

I apologize for even thinking anyone could make a halfway intelligent remark about SAR other than you. Apparently, only your salient suggestions for change have merit. Please revisit them for those of us who need enlightening.
Still, I will prattle on with my own silly thoughts -- stubborn, ignorant monkey that I am.
Your dissection of launch and response times is fascinating, but moot. My concern is that a two-hour launch time should not be acceptable. If it is usually an hour or less, why is the longer time given as an upper range? It shouldn't be.
Guide me, Ed. Blind me with the glare of your wisdom. This time, try not to waste too much time mocking my poor simian brain.

Ursula said...

It is a damn good thing that neither one of you is a SAR tech , or a pilot , everyone would be dead by now .

Edward Hollett said...


How will launching a helicopter 20 mins faster than currently occurs actually change anything when the central challenge is getting from where the SAR resources are to where the disaster occurs?

Might there be another way of getting the rescue resources to the disaster site?

Just a couple of questions. The first one gives you the chance to explain why I am wrong. Go ahead. You are the only one who seems to assume you are incapable.

Peter said...

Thanks for disarming the insult cannon, even if temporarily.

I don't understand why response time, as you define it, is the central challenge. It's all a challenge, and it all affects the time from first-call to on-scene. "It" being staffing, safety protocols, weather conditions, distance to site, etc. If launch time standards at one of day are four times slower than another, that sounds like a contigency that can be managed.

Again, you spend a lot of time slaying the ogres of ignorance. Please refresh us on the best course of action.

Edward Hollett said...

Right off the bat Peter, you really need to distinguish between the stated maximums the actual performance.

Frankly, since 103 gets airborne more often than not well inside that 120 minute maximum, it is misleading to keep referring to it.

In the evenings and on weekends it may take that long to launch but typically it doesn't take anything like that. If I recall correctly there have been occasions where the evening launch times are pretty close to the daytime maximum.

So basically, I don't see how actual launch time is a crucial issue in actual SAR response. As with any kind of emergency response the big thing is getting the resources from the base to the incident. There are a bunch of factors to be considered but distance from base to event seems to me to be the key one.

In a town, you can deploy your ambulance or fire resources in such a way that you can cover the largest area within a set period. Things will happen at random but they happen within a relatively small, defined geographic area.

I don't see how you do that with offshore SAR, at least not within the budgets available, even in the extreme. And in practice, even if you shave the helo launch time down to 15 mins, you will still be looking at flying times of upwards of two or more hours to get anywhere within the likely zone. You can invest giant sums and still come up with nothing of any consequence when it comes to actually getting out to the event site. (people are really confusing launch times with the transit/response time or the point I am making about getting to the site)

The way to get resources to a site faster is to go with fixed-wing SAR. As I argued last year, we should be adding fixed wing aircraft to the Gander mix. The 2003 study demonstrates the relative speeds of the aircraft quite nicely, even if the CBC reports didn't get to that point. Adding Hercules, for example, and upgrading the EH-101s could also give a refueling capability to help keep helicopters on station longer. You can get a bunch of benefits, including getting to more events more quickly than you can now.

But if you get fixated on how long it takes to go wheels up on a helicopter, you can invest a huge pile of cash and not be much farther ahead than you are now. As your comment noted and as the TSB report shows, these things are usually much more complicated than some people want to admit.

If only more people appreciated that and stopped jumping on the nearest available bandwagon, we might actually create the political environment that could get some meaningful improvements in SAR. That's basically the last sentence that I left hanging in case it didn't come across.

Peter said...

Thank you.
But i stand by my arguments about launch times. It is one of the few factors in a challenging situation over which there is a modicum of control.
I'm glad to hear the difference in off-hour LTs are usually no different then weekdays. But it still leaves the question: why the stated standard?
Take, for example, a flight time of one hour. Is an overall lapse of three hours acceptable because it's after 4 p.m.?
By the way, just because someone raises this particular issue does not automatically mean they are utterly oblivious to the bigger picture. Your interest and knowledge in defence matters is appreciated, but you don't have a monopoly on the subject.

Edward Hollett said...

I gather it is like any other bureaucratic rule: circumstances many affect people getting to the base, launching etc.

You can stick to the 30 min launch time all you want but I think it is really just a case of one of those popular ideas some people have latched onto and it is very hard to let go of.

It is also not one that can be changed quite as simply as you claim. It will require additional people and costs. Additional fixed wing aircraft will add costs but they would also produce a substantial change in assets to send to a disaster.

You might want to take a look at the comment Pugliese posted on Sunday. There is much more to the issue of SAR than most people realise and much of the public commentary comes from people with little or no knowledge of the subject.

Just so that there is no mistaking the point Peter, I realise other people have knowledge and insight. I will stand by my contention that the people I have been criticising don't have any basic idea of what's on the go. The fact they get air time and print space is indicative of nothing other than their ability to get quoted. That may offend someone's sensibilities but there it is: my opinion. YMMV, as they say.

Take a look at the Commons defence committee. It remains, for the most part, as it always has been: dominated by people with little knowledge of defence issues who, by the time they finish their stint, are usually up to the basic level of knowledge they should have had when they started. There are exceptions but, in general, that's the way the committee plays out.