Canadian military turns to volunteers for Arctic rescues

A search and rescue technician lands on the runway of a military post at the northern tip of Ellesmere Island. The government plans to augment military technicians with volunteers. Bob Weber/Canadan PressThe Canadian military has struck a handshake deal to have part-time volunteers provide first-response search and rescue services in the Arctic, CBC News has learned.

Military officials have been negotiating with the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA), a national agency that promotes aviation safety and provides air search support.

Almost all of Canada’s rescue planes are based thousands of kilometres away in the South, and it can take hours to get them up to the Arctic to launch aerial search efforts.

The new deal would see CASARA put volunteers aboard civilian planes to search for downed aircraft, missing hunters or lost adventurers, CBC’s James Cudmore reported. The agency will even base planes in four locations across the North.

“There’s discussion to buttress what we do already to have augmented search and rescue capability, but the primary responsibility rests with the Department of National Defence,” Defence Minister Peter MacKay said Wednesday.

“It’s simply facing the realities of the size, the width and breadth of the Arctic – the very challenging weather conditions that are there and the fact that we are seeing expanded activity and larger settlements in the North.”

The next steps will be to negotiate the details of the contract and to figure out who will charter the planes that will be on standby, Cudmore reported.

Over the years, the military has vigorously resisted the idea of contracting out its search and rescue service — but the military has also been panned for its reluctance to actually base search and rescue planes in the Arctic.

Martin Shadwick, a military analyst and research fellow at Toronto’s York University, says that’s because of the high cost of Arctic operations.

“The Forces, especially on the helicopter side, are hard pressed to maintain a credible search and rescue capability in the southern part of the country,” Shadwick said.

The situation is even more complex in the North, where weather and long distances can complicate a search and rescue effort.

Shadwick said the military still has to do more in the North and not just rely on the goodwill of volunteers to help save Canadian lives.

In October, Canadian representatives joined delegates from other circumpolar countries at a conference in Whitehorse to discuss search and rescue co-operation.

The recent meeting came months after Canada and several other Arctic nations signed an agreement that would require Arctic Council countries to co-ordinate in the event of a major incident like a plane crash or a cruise ship accident.

CBC News

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