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 -