FWSAR History

The Genesis of Search and Rescue (SAR) in Canada

Prior to the mid-1940’s, a formal SAR capability did not exist in Canada. Rescue efforts at the time occurred primarily as a result of vessels and aircraft reacting locally to incidents when required. Search activity was usually directed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) or local police forces.

As the Canadian population grew, aviation activity increased both domestically and internationally. It was recognized that a structured SAR organization,providing highly trained personnel, specialized equipment, and facilities to control and coordinate response, was required.

In the immediate post-WWII period, Canada actively participated in the establishment of both the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), United Nations bodies seeking to provide structure to the maritime and burgeoning civil aviation environments worldwide. In both environments, the provision of SAR services was an area of concern.

The Canadian federal area of responsibility is as defined under International Civil Aviation Organization agreements for aeronautical SAR and under International Maritime Organisation agreements for maritime SAR. The Canadian waters of the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River system are also part of the Canadian federal SAR area of responsibility.

Canadian Forces (CF) involvement in SAR began in 1947 when the Cabinet tasked the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) with providing coordination and response for aeronautical distress incidents throughout Canada. From there, the Canadian SAR program evolved to include a number of partners and agencies. Today the primary responsibility for the provision of aeronautical search and rescue services and effective operation of the co-ordinated aeronautical and maritime SAR system is assigned to the Department of National Defence.

The Philosophy of SAR in Canada

The principles of Canadian SAR are prevention and response. The goal is to reduce and eliminate instances of distress through education, training, safe practices, regulatory measures and mandatory safety equipment. No matter how effective prevention efforts are, the total elimination of instances of distress is unachievable.

Thus, when prevention measures fail to preclude the occurrence of a SAR incident, the second objective, SAR response, becomes necessary. SAR response is focused on providing timely and appropriate assistance to those in distress.

How SAR in Canada Differs from Other Countries

Canada is the world’s second largest nation in terms of land mass and has the world’s longest coastline, much of it within our Arctic Archipelago. Canada’s extensive 18,000,000 square km area of responsibility for search and rescue include the country’s land mass plus large expanses of ocean waters that extend 1000 NM offshore off the east coast and 800 NM off the west coast.

This vast area entails a wide range of geographic regions that include prairie, forest, mountains, arctic, coastal and ocean. Climatic conditions vary greatly from region to region and from season to season. From a demographics perspective, Canada’s relatively small population is concentrated in the extreme southern part of the country. Given the significant environmental and geographic conditions throughout the large, sparsely populated area of SAR responsibility, Canada needs a robust SAR capability to provide a responsive and effective SAR service.

Why Canada Needs a Robust SAR Capability

With crews strategically located across Canada, the Canadian Forces maintains a diverse fleet of Rotary Wing and Fixed Wing aircraft for search and rescue purposes. These crews are held on high alert to respond to incidents anywhere in the area of responsibility. The helicopter is a proven platform for many SAR applications such as search and rescue, confined area operations, deployment of personnel and equipment and extraction of victims (rescue). Helicopters are, however, limited by slow speed, short range and weather restrictions which often prevent the SAR helicopter from being the first on scene.

The Fixed Wing component of the SAR force provides a long range, high speed, long endurance, all weather capability to ensure a rapid response to incidents in any part of the area of responsibility. In distress situations, time to rescue is critical for survival. High speed Fixed Wing aircraft transit to the search area via the shortest route possible. Once the incident site is located, the SAR crew commence rescue operations with aerial delivery of medical equipment and search and rescue technicians. The aircraft are also used to provide illumination and top cover in support of SAR operations during night.

Additional uses for Fixed Wing aircraft include the evacuation survivors to medical facilities, and in disaster relief - both delivery of aid and/or extraction of injured.

The Role of Search and Rescue Technicians (SAR Techs)

SAR Techs are highly trained personnel capable of deploying by parachute or hoist to an incident site and performing emergency trauma care procedures under austere conditions; SAR Techs save lives and stabilize victims for medical evacuation.

A SAR Tech’s medical training is above that between a PCP (Primary Care Paramedic) and ACP (Advanced Care Paramedic), due to typically long distance between the incident site and comprehensive medical care facilities. Indeed, SAR Techs are trained (and equipped) to perform some procedures normally limited to physicians or nurses, such as administration of narcotics such as morphine, advanced airways, and specialized medical procedures. They are also trained in scuba diving, mountain climbing and supporting survival under all climatic conditions.

Historical Developments in SAR

The most significant advancement has been in the field of detection. COSPAS-SARSAT, a satellite based alert and detection system designed to detect emergency beacons activated by aircraft and ships became operational in the mid-eighties. COSPAS-SARSAT has been successful in providing timely and accurate distress information for many incidents which has resulted in faster SAR responses. With the recent satellite and ground-based transmitter upgrades which now include location information, SAR responders have been able to proceed to incident sites with minimal search operation. However the COSPAS-SARSAT system is only effective when there is a functioning emergency beacon transmitting. In incidents where there is no beacon or where the beacon malfunctions, search operations become necessary.

There has been steady advancement in sensor development that has SAR application. Electro-Optic/Infrared (EO/IR) systems with the ability to detect, classify and identify various targets of interest with capacity to function in low thermal contrast conditions through cloud, fog, smoke, haze and precipitation have been fielded. These sensor systems have been used effectively to enhance the search component of SAR. 

The Essential Capabilities Required of Canada’s New Fixed Wing Aircraft

The new aircraft will be an all-weather platform equipped with state of the art communication, navigation and sensor systems.

Given the size of Canada’s SAR area of responsibility, the aircraft must be capable of rapidly transiting long distances with the endurance to deploy equipment and personnel to the incident site. An air-operable rear ramp is essential to facilitate the safe loading and aerial delivery of equipment and personnel. The cabin must be sufficiently large to accommodate a SAR mission load and allow unrestricted movement of personnel. The aircraft must be able to operate from austere airfields without ground support to facilitate SAR operations and accommodate forward staging for medevac operations.

These are some of the essential features of the new FWSAR platform. As a search platform the aircraft must be highly maneouverable at slow speeds and capable of operating in mountainous terrain. Unobstructed cockpit visibility is essential to enable tightly confined low level search patterns. Spotter stations must have an optimized field of view to maximize the effectiveness of visual search operations.