Volunteer search-and-rescue withers as Tories twist over auditor's report

OTTAWA - Management of search and rescue, particularly the replacement of fixed-wing planes, has been a case study in bureaucratic infighting and political indifference, critics charged in the wake of the latest auditor general's report.

Michael Ferguson's politically bruising report, which warned some elements of the joint military and coast guard system are near the breaking point, should spur the Harper government to action, says an association of rescue volunteers.

"There's nothing startling in that report for sure — nothing we didn't already know," said Harry Blackmore, president of the Search and Rescue Volunteer Association of Canada.

"People are out there doing the best they can with what they got."

Defence Minister Peter MacKay turned aside Opposition questions in the House of Commons on Wednesday, saying the government is taking the auditor's warning seriously.

"We've already begun work on the issues. We've already begin working with stakeholders, including other departments," said MacKay.

"We'll be assessing our search-and-rescue governance structure at all federal levels, as well as working with the other jurisdictions to ensure search and rescue continues to improve in this country."

Conservatives have taken pains to say that the rescue system, which covers 18 million square kilometres of land and sea, is a priority, an assertion that made Blackmore chuckle.

"Boy, if it is, it's news me," he said in a telephone interview from his office in St. John's, N.L. "I don't think it's a priority to them."

Blackmore's repeated calls to meet with MacKay have been ignored, he says.

The association represents 10,000 ground search volunteers across the country. Along with other civilian organizations such as Civil Air Search and Rescue Association, the group is a pillar in the system of disaster response.

Federal documents show National Defence officials had to go cap in hand a few years ago looking for a few hundred thousand dollars to keep the organization from dissolving.

Blackmore's group has for years operated on three-year grants, the latest of which runs out in March next year. It has also sought sustainable funding from the federal government, pleas that so far have fallen on deaf ears.

A 2010 memo to MacKay warned that the organization faced "collapse" without sustained funding, and that attempts to find the cash failed at the Public Safety Department.

"Ground search and rescue is not part of Public Safety Canada's mandate," said the briefing note by associate deputy minister William Pentney, obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information.

The grants keeping the organization alive were intended for short-term projects only and without the association there would be no one to deliver ground-based training and standards, the memo warned.

Blackmore said he's written the national search-and-rescue secretariat numerous times, including this week, asking for meetings, but has never received a response.

His organization is asking for $400,000 a year to run its program.

One of the auditor general's recommendations was for the government to fund prevention programs, noting the $8.2 million set aside for such activities has not changed in 20 years.

Ferguson's report also chastised the Harper government for failing to deliver new fixed-wing search planes, a project started in 2002 but stuck in military bureaucracy and defence industry lobbying.

The effort ground to a halt when rival aerospace companies accused the air force of rigging specifications to favour one aircraft, the Italian-built C-27J transport.

The dispute was settled after MacKay asked the National Research Council for an independent evaluation, which the Public Works Department is using to ask for bids.

The government expects to begin soliciting offers in the fall.

But budget documents show funding for new aircraft, replacing nearly 50-year-old C-115 Buffaloes and older model Hercules, won't available until the 2015-17 time frame.

Internal documents also show there was considerable debate about whether the air force should operate with two different aircraft as it does now.

The infighting was put to rest by the former defence chief, retired general Walt Natynczyk, who wrote in a June 2009 briefing note that a mixed fleet was "demonstrably more costly than a single-fleet solution, regardless of the capability being sought."

Compared with hardware such as tanks and the F-35 jets, search planes and volunteer organizations are not as politically flashy, opposition critics said.

New Democrat defence critic Jack Harris said the issue has been managed with political short-sightedness.

Search and rescue is "pretty sexy if you're in the cold waters of the North Atlantic waiting for a plane, and the plane comes after one of your mates has gone under," he said.

"Anybody who knows anything about search and rescue can admire the bravery of SARtechs."