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Efforts to improve rescue operations off Newfoundland delayed

Efforts to cut the response time of search-and-rescue operations off the coast of Newfoundland are being delayed because work on a new helicopter base at St. John's airport for the offshore-oil industry won't be completed by year's end as expected.

A new search-and-rescue helicopter was delivered to the province in July and is on standby at the airport, but key infrastructure such as a hangar and crew quarters are not yet in place.

The result is that it will be difficult to achieve by the end of the year - as hoped - the 15-to-20-minute response time recommended in February by a retired judge examining an offshore helicopter crash that killed 17 people last year.

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The response time has already been reduced to about 30 minutes from the previous one hour.

"It's our understanding from the helicopter contractor that there is some work to be done with the regulatory authorities and the airport authority before all the elements are in place and so it will be some time before it's completed," said John Downton, a spokesman for Calgary-based Suncor Energy Inc., operator of the Terra Nova oil field off the coast of Newfoundland.

Inquiry head and former Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court judge Robert Wells said it's his understanding the response time will be shaved to between 15 and 20 minutes once a new hangar at the airport is completed some time in the spring.

He said he's satisfied with the progress made so far in improving the response-time situation.

"I was hoping [the response time]would be down to 15-to-20 minutes by the end of the year. That target will not be met," he said. "But it has been cut to half-an-hour, so there is progress."

Mr. Wells took the unusual step in February of submitting early recommendations to the compliance watchdogs for the province's oil and gas industry because of the urgency of the matter.

In a letter to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, he requested that the body reduce the time it takes for a rescue helicopter to get into the air in emergency situations, to 15-to-20 minutes.

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In a report made public last week, Mr. Wells recommended that a "powerful" and independent safety regulator be created to police Newfoundland's offshore industry.

He did not suggest that a lack of oversight led to the Cougar Flight 491 crash of a Sikorsky S-92 helicopter as it headed to an oil platform in March of 2009.

The only survivor - Robert Decker - waited 75 minutes in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic before being rescued.

The crash is being investigated by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which is expected to report in January or February.

Mr. Wells said he will review that report and invite input from interested parties before writing a final report to the C-NLOPB.

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About the Author
Quebec Business Correspondent

Bertrand has been covering Quebec business and finance since 2000. Before joining The Globe and Mail in 2000, he was the Toronto-based national business correspondent for Southam News. He has a B.A. from McGill University and a Bachelor of Applied Arts from Ryerson. More

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