Arctic Search and Rescue
Sep 15, 2013

Just as Arctic politics take centre stage today, Canada and the other Northern nations must confront shared polar realities from climate change to helping one another on the SAR front. During a vital Arctic summit, which took place in Goose Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, in April 2012, top brass from the eight Arctic Council states – Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States – held lengthy discussions on how to deal with the challenges posed by the Arctic’s geography, climate, infrastructure and distance, as well as military-aboriginal issues.

Even the most seasoned Arctic explorer will attest to the fact that “incidents” in the North are among the most challenging for SAR personnel anywhere in the circumpolar world – from Nunavut to Siberia. Responders face the challenges of shorter days and round-the-clock darkness in winter, extreme weather and terrain, and lack of infrastructure. The inescapable fact is that successful rescues rely on swift response and require efficient operations, qualified rescue personnel and the right equipment. Does Canada have what it takes up North? Many are skeptical.

DND Photo: Sgt Matthew McGregor

How does Canada rate when it comes to Arctic SAR?
“Canada’s Arctic SAR capabilities are woefully inadequate compared to those of the other Arctic countries, including Russia,” says Michael Byers, the Canada Research Chair in Global Politics and International Law at the University of British Columbia and the author of a new book about “International Law and the Arctic”.

Byers affirms that: “The women and men who provide search and rescue through the Canadian Forces are truly remarkable. But they operate at vast distances, in some cases with inadequate equipment. Our fixed wing search and rescue aircraft in this country are more than 40 years old, and that’s a problem.”

Members of the Canadian Rangers start a hike to conduct an inspection of Lab 2 (North warning site), a facility located in Saglek, Labrador. (DND Photo: Cpl Rick Ayer, Formation Imaging Services, Halifax, NS)

“A search and rescue helicopter that’s dispatched to the Northwest Passage has to come from several thousand miles away, either from Vancouver Island or Labrador or perhaps Nova Scotia. As a result, there is built-in delay and costs are very significant. Other countries don’t do this. During the summer months, the U.S. Coast Guard positions two SAR helicopters at Barrow, on Alaska’s Arctic Ocean coastline, because of the response time that provides,” he relates.

“Our search-and-rescue personnel are some of the best in the world, but the lack of government support and the lack of new equipment and forward positioning, means they cannot compare to the services of other countries in terms of response time.”

Byers acknowledges that “the scale of the money involved is quite significant. For example, if you dispatch a Cormorant helicopter from Greenwood, Nova Scotia to somewhere in the central Arctic to rescue an Inuit hunter from an ice floe. That’s an operation that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars – just for that one rescue mission. Of course, if that helicopter were located at Rankin Inlet, the costs would go down. So when I look at search and rescue in the Arctic, I wonder, are we actually saving by not positioning assets further North? It’s quite expensive to try and save money by keeping assets in the South.”

Resolute Bay airport, Nunavut

Nunavut, a territory about the size of Europe, has a population of 34,000 – about the same number as Monaco. And therein lies some of the problem. With such a sparse population and extremely harsh weather conditions, it is not surprising that transportation infrastructure is very poor in Canada’s Arctic. Apart from private roads built for resource projects such as mines, Nunavut has only 21 kilometres of all-weather road and there is only one port – in Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit. It is easy to understand why aircraft are pretty much the sole means of transportation between distant Arctic communities.

Aviation safety in the Arctic
Canada’s volunteer Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA), is making impressive progress for Arctic SAR. Former National Association president, John Davidson, asserts that “the record of the airlines flying in the Arctic is excellent, with very, very few incidents for the hours flown in very trying and challenging conditions.” The number of aviation-related incidents in the North are minimal, he says, but the picture is not rosy.

Iqaluit Airport, Nunavut

“Aviation is a federal SAR mandate – and they have the best coverage at the ­current time. Now, does that mean that it’s the most desired? No.” He acknowledges that any discussion of SAR elicits intense emotions. “You need to try and help your fellow man and rescue him because that’s what you want to do. Economically, when you have to put a price to it, there is only a finite number of dollars.”

The question of how best to use finite resources rages on. Do we establish SAR bases in the North? Are we looking at all the best options for the people or for the bottom line? “It’s always going to be a contentious issue,” admits Davidson, “because we have to be responsible for a number of different interests that are pulling in different directions, unfortunately.”

However, the federal government is making very positive headway by facilitating solutions that incorporate people who live in the North. Davidson points out that in December 2011, the Canadian Forces earmarked a budget of $500,000 to CASARA to advance SAR capabilities in Nunavut. The funds will increase the number of pilots and spotters it can call upon. If it is successful, a similar scenario is expected for the Northwest Territories.

CASARA was incorporated in the 10 provinces and the 2 territories in 1986, and has been operating in Nunavut since 1997. Today it has access to about 375 aircraft and 2,596 certified pilots, navigators and spotters throughout Canada.

Byers believes that it’s high time to address the issue of the lack of helicopters available in the Canadian Arctic. “We need to invest in new fixed-wing SAR aircraft and also base at least one, and probably two, of the Canadian Forces’ existing Cormorant SAR helicopters in the North during the busy summer months.”

Airways of the Arctic skies becoming busier each day
First Officer Oliver Evans, a pilot with Air Canada for over 25 years, confirms the increasing air traffic. “The Arctic skies are definitely becoming more crowded. And as far as infrastructure goes, I wish they did have more facilities up there, because nowadays, the airplanes are actually getting bigger as well. The new double-decker Airbus 380 is a good example; they don’t really have that many airports [in the North] with enough ground support if something was to go drastically wrong – and with 350 people on board, you’re going to need a lot of hotel rooms [and] more hospital beds as well,” says Evans.

Twin Otters in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Photo: Jane Kokan

“There are not many alternate airports in the Arctic that can handle that many people, let alone an airstair. The A380, being a double-decker, would require a very big airstair to get all those people off quickly. I am quite happy that the authorities are going to get Iqaluit [airport] sorted out and improved. But there is nothing really north of Iqaluit, as far as an alternate airport goes, that is big enough for large planes. Resolute Bay only has a 6,500 foot runway (1,981 metres). Alert is 5,500 feet (1,676 metres). And if you go even further north than that, there’s Eureka, which has a 4,800 foot runway (1,464 metres). Thule in Greenland has a 10,000 foot runway (3,047 metres), so that would be fine for a landing. But once you go north of Thule, you have nothing.”

In responding to a question about the possibility of future aviation disasters over the Arctic, Evans replies: “It’s only going to be a matter of time before something happens on one of the Polar routes. Somebody is going to have either decompression or an engine failure and they are going to be looking for an airport and there are not many around. Personally, I would like to see more infrastructure to take care of an emergency [in the Arctic].”

When asked if he is surprised there haven’t been more accidents up North, Evans replies that “there have been close calls – whether it’s controller error or whether it’s a lack of communication due to natural causes, meaning sunspot activity – there have been problems.”

Evans elaborates on what could go wrong with the aircraft communications systems: “Most of the communication up there is difficult because of the earth’s magnetic field. And also satellite communication gets interrupted if there are magnetic storms. But the plasma that the sun spits out basically knocks out communications up there. If something goes wrong and you can’t communicate, that will make things even more difficult. High frequency radio is the old way of communicating, but even that gets knocked out during solar storms.”

Arctic summer: a flurry of activity in Resolute Bay
During the brief summer period, the small Arctic community of Resolute Bay is buzzing with activity – from buildings being erected to geologists collecting soil and rock samples. There are pilots flying Cessnas to the North Pole, with tourists or for personal adventure.
Resolute Bay is the second northernmost community in Canada. In Inuktitut, its name is Qausuittuq which means “the place with no dawn.”

Resolute Bay hunter Paul Amagoalik says, “It’s really busy here between June and September, with all the Southern people showing up when the daylight comes. There are also cruise ships and exploration companies that are hiring helicopters and Twin Otters, and scientists that are going from island to island all over the place.” Amagoalik adds that Resolute’s airport is getting “too busy” for his liking. He is not too keen on the possibility of a major airport expansion in Resolute Bay, which has been the subject of much speculation recently. If this were to happen, a new long paved runway would permit fighter aircraft to operate from the site.

Paul Amagoalik
This tiny Arctic hub is set to get a lot busier. This past August, the federal government officially opened the Canadian Armed Forces Arctic Training Centre in Resolute Bay. (Davidson and his team were involved in the construction of it.) The curriculum will include cold weather survival, search and rescue training, and other military training and operations. The new centre is intended to function as a command post for emergency operations and disaster response, and for pre-positioning equipment and vehicles.
Davidson, now the director for CASARA Manitoba, points out that CASARA is working on an agreement that will charter commercial aircraft with trained civilian volunteers. “This will provide the first line of defence, if you will, to allow the search to commence while the southern RCAF resources are being mobilized. So we will charter the airplane and take it to the last known position and start our search procedures. If we can locate the incident, the downed aircraft, it will cut the time required for the resource coming from the South. Because they can hone directly to the site rather than having to commence a search on their own.” This will reduce the response delay as SAR Techs from Trenton or Winnipeg make their way North.
By using local volunteers, the “really big advantage” is the local knowledge brought to the search. “That’s a very big asset. And if we can tap into that by using volunteers, then we have the best of both worlds.”
What about the large Northern locations such as Iqaluit and Yellowknife? Davidson notes that CASARA can charter and search with commercial operators in those locations. “Planes belonging to commercial operators such as First Air or Air North are already based in Northern communities such as Iqaluit and Yellowknife and would be able to respond more rapidly than military aircraft based in Trenton or Winnipeg.”

Will all of Nunavut be reachable under this agreement?
Davidson says, “right now we are doing an evaluation of where CASARA operators are located, and looking at the type of aircraft that we will charter and the circle or radius of where we can operate from in terms of fuel and endurance. We are in the process of putting that together. And by and large, it looks quite positive for the majority of the Nunavut territory – it would be covered within three to four hours.”
The agreement between CASARA and the military is a very good step for the near future. “The way the economy is today, and the situation with funding, we are the interim stop-gap solution for the next number of years until something comes along that may be better or an adjunct to what we do,” he says. “And there are lot of things that are evolving technologically speaking. So it’s going to be an interesting time.”
Davidson believes there is ample opportunity for putting useful technologies such as thermal sensors on an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle to use for the search function in the North. “You have to wonder whether or not some of that technology can’t be applied to the SAR world. There is lot of potential that hasn’t been tapped yet.”

Untapped Potential
Michael Byers, a vocal advocate for better utilization of the Canadian Rangers, says “Inuit hunters already provide essential search and rescue capacity close to the communities where they live, mostly through the Canadian Rangers program but also through the Coast Guard Auxiliary. But the Arctic is a vast and very sparsely populated region and the Rangers are neither trained nor equipped to provide SAR over long distances or for large incidents such as the crash landing of a large commercial airliner with potentially hundreds of injured passengers. Maintaining and strengthening the SAR capabilities of the Inuit is important but hardly sufficient.” However, according to Davidson, Canada’s Arctic reality is that “these are still the closest and quickest resources, and [the Rangers] bring local knowledge to the scene.”

Sgt Iqualuk and Rangers of the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group.

Can the Rangers take on the challenges of Arctic search and rescue?
“Yes, without a shadow of a doubt,” says Sergeant Deborah Iqaluk, with the 1st Canadian Ranger Patrol Group. “I think they should just leave the search and rescues to the Northern communities, since the locals know their Arctic backyard and have better eyesight than people from down South who are trying to look for people in the woods. We live here all year long.”

Sgt Iqaluk lives in Resolute Bay and explains that her “entire community” was very involved with Op Nunalivut 2012 and 2013, both of which included robust SAR components. The Rangers also conducted route and point reconnaissance and predator (polar bear) patrols. The fact is, the Canadian Rangers have played a pivotal role in all of Canada’s sovereignty and surveillance exercises since their formation. In 1942, the first Canadian Rangers, known as the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers, were established in British Columbia and the Yukon to watch and listen for signs of Japanese forces operating in the Pacific. In 1998, the Rangers were re-organized into five Canadian Ranger Patrol Groups.

 “Up in the Arctic, every day is a search and rescue day,” points out Sergeant Iqaluk. “My brother went missing in June after his skidoo broke down. I thought he was lost forever. If it were not for our infrastructure of volunteers, I don’t know how he would have ever been located.”

As a hunter, she knows her land intimately and has dedicated so many years of her life to recruiting Junior Rangers. She is now extremely involved with basic Arctic field training: the curriculum includes how to build igloos and snow caves, predator control, and living off the land.

Her 14-year-old grandson, Paddy, has been recruited by the Junior Rangers Program in Iqaluit. “The Junior and regular Rangers programs are such a positive thing. It puts young people on the right track and they take pride in what they do. If the search and rescue teams that come up from down South would be nice enough to put young people or Rangers on their trips, to do search and rescue, I believe this would greatly help Northern societies.” She adds that North­ern communities are brimming with bored teenagers hanging outside the local Co-op store with nothing to do.
Sgt Iqaluk, who has been a Ranger for 13 years, is also a volunteer firefighter. She was one of the first responders at the First Air crash site on August 20, 2011. She says the tragic accident that killed 12 people (only 3 passengers survived) had a “huge impact” on the local community. “I would hate to see it happen again, but it might, and the military may not be in town.”

Iqaluk says she would like to see the locals get more involved in search and rescue operations. However, there is an issue with regards to training. “We don’t get search and rescue seminars on a regular basis,” she says, pointing out another setback. “If a Ranger is required in a search and rescue group, he or she has to call headquarters in order to get the paperwork signed off, authorizing their role in the search and ­rescue, so they don’t lose pay. We already have our own community search and rescue ­people here in Resolute, but if they need more people, the Rangers have to help out. When we call headquarters in Yellowknife, we have to say how many Rangers are going to be involved with search and rescue.

April 2013 – Ranger Samson Simeonie (left) indicates the next leg of their journey to Rangers James Anguti and Desmond Massettoe while on their two-week Arctic patrol during Operation Nunalivut. (Photo: Cpl Aydyn Neifer, CFJIC High Readiness)

“I would prefer to have each Northern community have its own unique team of people out there to look. We have always noticed that the planes that come up that are doing search and rescue are flying too high. They are flying too high, and they won’t find anything at that height and they can’t see anything. But, the Twin Otters that are stationed in our community, they do find missing people because they are travelling at low [altitudes].” Iqaluk says there are usually two Twin Otters in service in Resolute.

Rangers may get called for other missions besides search and rescue. “We also do winter warfare survival by taking the military up and showing them how to shelter themselves – there is no room for error in the winter. The Canadian Forces do the caves. We make the igloos. Some members of the Canadian Forces have slept in igloos that I have made. Mind you, some of the ­soldiers from the Canadian Forces are quite good at igloo building, while others are not. We’ll have to work on that,” she grins.
A view from the Mayor of Resolute Bay
Tabitha Mullin, the Mayor of Resolute Bay, was born in this Arctic hamlet. She affirms that “search and rescue is part of everyday life in the North. The harsh environment means things go wrong and people get lost all the time.” She explains that every Arctic community has a “grassroots” SAR capability. “Here in Resolute, there is a group of search and rescue volunteers that are on constant standby with the Hunters and Trappers Organization.”

Mayor Mullin, who has held that position since April 2011, points out that “most of the local Rangers are on the SAR list as well. I don’t know what kind of conflict they come across when it comes to getting paid for doing a search and rescue. I think the Rangers should get paid once they get a call out.” She affirms that, “no matter what you learned during your time as a Ranger, it does stick with you for life. You have survival skills for life.” Mayor Mullin was a Ranger for 10 years, and then became a ­volunteer for both the local Hunters and Trappers Organization and CASARA.

Mayor Mullin would also like to see more full-time Northerners become paid SAR professionals. “A lot of the Rangers and other young people do not have jobs throughout the year. If they were on call on a daily basis, or another arrangement, with pay, I am sure there would be a lot less crime like break-ins and assaults. Also, the Rangers are highly respected by the younger generation and we are starting to see a lot more of them sign up for Junior Rangers. I am sure it would have a really positive impact, if that was to happen. It is a big problem that young people aren’t busy and engaged up here.”

In Nunavut, the homicide rate among young people is 10 times higher than in the rest of Canada. In addition, rates of violent crime including domestic abuse and robbery are disproportionately high.

Mayor Mullin, recalls the August 2011 First Air crash. “The community was just lucky that the military was here for their exercises. Otherwise, it wouldn’t have been very good. We were very fortunate that the Canadian Forces were here, in close range, rather than Trenton trying to fly up here, which would take a few hours at least.”

August 2013, from left: Jules Moreau (Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre Chief Warrant Officer), Mike Kristjanson (Natural Resources Canada), Tabitha Mullin (Mayor of Resolute Bay), and MGen Steve Bowes (Commander Canadian Army Doctrine and Training Centre) cut a ribbon to officially open the Canadian Armed Forces Arctic Training Centre in Resolute Bay, Nunavut. Photo: WO Mark Irvine, Directorate Canadian Army Public Affairs

The Mayor is an avid hunter. “I have hunted everything including polar bears, whales, seals, migratory birds and caribou,” she says, adding that “even in the 24 hour darkness, people are still hunting daily.”

She points out that hunting in the Arctic can be a very risky business. “Hunters do disappear, never to be found,” says Mullin, adding that she would like to see air assets closer to home. “One time it took them three days to come up because of bad weather. This happened in November 2009. This guy was hunting at the floe edge and the ice broke off. They got him in the nick of time when he was drifting towards Davis Strait, right through ­Lancaster Sound.

“He was a lucky man all right. He was lucky too in that he had an Iridium satellite phone. He was able to make contact. Once the circuits came up, we were able to talk to him and relay messages. There are a lot of hunters that cannot afford satellite phones.”

Mayor Mullin believes that each Arctic community should have access to satellite phones or hand-held radios. “The airport maintainers have hand-held radios. If com­munities were equipped with the tower for those kinds of communications – that would be ideal if something should happen.”

About Arctic Council meetings, the Mayor explains: “We don’t hear a lot about these kind of meetings, I don’t know who’s ever invited to those [conferences] who actually lives in the Arctic all year long.”

She suggests that having the military closer to the Nunavut communities would help. “That would be a big bonus since it takes really long for the military from Trenton to come up here. But the big thing too, is having the equipment to do search and rescue. We could have people here all year round, but if they don’t have the equipment to go out and do that, then there’s not much point in it.”

Mayor Mullin affirms that the indigenous Arctic people are the full-time “eyes and ears” of the North. “As locals, we are trained to observe our environment. It’s instinctive. Every day, winter or summer, we are always scouring the landscape, whether we are travelling by ­skidoo, four wheelers, or boat – to see who’s out there. It could be a lost hunter or a tourist.”

Would it be in Canada’s best interests to station SAR resources in the Canadian Arctic? “It would be,” agrees Mullin. “They are starting to put more and more training towards that area, just enough to train ­people, just enough money to buy some equipment like GPSs and [Beacon Locators].” She suggests it would be beneficial to arrange training sessions in the smaller ­communities due to the high costs of bringing people to Iqaluit.
“Some­times they will only send one person, and that one person will come back and talk about it. But that’s very different from actual hands-on training. It would be nice if we could get some kind of headquarters for search and rescue closer in the Arctic. It would be nice to see that happen because the Arctic is becoming a busy place, with a lot more people going out and exploring for resources. There will be more people getting lost, or accidents happening because of the big weather changes we are going through.”

She points out, “right now our people have to fly to Iqaluit to get SAR training. The military come up to do their Ranger exercises. They get trained every year for search and rescue, emergencies and stuff like that. I think the civilians that live up here should be given the option to ­participate in SAR training as well – particularly those who have volunteered to be on the list for SAR.”

The Arctic skies are getting busier. Each year around 115,000 commercial flights transit the Canadian Arctic. What would happen if an aircraft like a 737 crashed in the winter, in total darkness? Mullin is silent for a minute and takes a deep breath. “That question is very hard to answer because there is no telling if there would be any survivors or not. But, trying to get to the crash site, it would be a little harder without the use of helicopters that were around here in August [2011], because then we would have to go either by four wheelers or by skidoos, and there are no roads outside of this community, especially in the winter time. There is always a hope that you do find survivors. In this cold weather, I cannot say if there would be any survivors in the time frame that it would take us to get to the site or even to find it in the beginning. It’s a very hard question.”

Northern Youth Are Ready
There is no doubt that Canada’s Arctic citizens are survivors in more ways than one. They live in remote, isolated communities, where jobs are hard to come by. Most hunt for their food, out of preference or the high cost of Western groceries. Northern youth offer huge potential for search and rescue – and they are up for the challenge.

Photo: Jane Kokan

Clyde Manik, a 19-year-old from Resolute Bay, will soon become a fully-fledged Ranger. “Joining the military has been a dream of mine,” says Manik, who hails from a family of Rangers. He plans to study computer sciences and IT at university and then, “hopefully” become a ­professional SAR Technician.

“Everybody in the Manik family has search and rescue experience and takes it very seriously,” he asserts. “Young guys like me need challenges. There’s not much to do up here most of the year. Really, my dream would be to save lives. That would make me feel really good about myself and my role in the community.”

Photo: Jane Kokan

It makes sense for the Canadian military to tap the young, full-time Northern residents who have SAR ambitions. More than a third of the population of Nunavut is under the age of 15 – almost twice as high as the rest of Canada. But, sadly, the dreams of many ­Arctic inhabitants do not materialize due to isolation, the lack of job opportunities, and complex social problems.

Canada as a nation would benefit by engaging Inuit youth with real jobs and responsibilities that utilize their special abilities. In doing so, Clyde Manik and Arctic citizens like him can seize the opportunity to train to provide a life-saving service to visitors or fellow neighbours in the Northern backyard.

Jane Kokan is a regular contributor to FrontLine magazines
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