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Ottawa beefing up search-and-rescue satellite systems after warning

Search and rescue technicians are hoisted by a Cormorant helicopter during a Canada-United States coast guard ceremony in Halifax on Thursday, Sept. 28, 2006. The federal auditor general says the country's search-and-rescue system is in distress and some elements are near the breaking point.

Andrew Vaughan/THE CANADIAN PRESS

The Harper government is announcing it will beef up satellite surveillance used to in search-and-rescue operations as part of an overhaul being unveiled days after a spending watchdog warned the system is near breaking point.

Defence Minister Peter MacKay is also launching a comprehensive review of Canada's search-and-rescue capabilities.

The LEOSAR system (low-earth orbit search and rescue) already used by Canada is being upgraded and eventually its detection abilities will be improved when the MEOSAR satellite (medium-altitude Earth orbit search and rescue system) comes on-line.

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The Conservatives are investing $11.5-million more in LEOSAR and will spend $4.7-million on MEOSAR.

The government is not announcing that it's made a choice on a new search-and-rescue aircraft to replace Canada's aging Buffalo SAR planes. The Conservatives first promised to replace these planes in the 2005-2006 election campaign that brought them to power.

Auditor General Michael Ferguson said this week that 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.

Saying "significant improvements" are quickly needed, Mr. 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.

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.

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."

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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.

Other measures include:

– Completing the renovated Joint Resource Coordination Centre in Halifax that is undergoing $2-million in upgrades to modernize technical infrastructure and consolidate efforts in maritime search and rescue co-ordination.

– Revamping the registry system for Canadian rescue beacons.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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