SAR Report on the L'Acadien ll Sinking

A very damming report on where the Coast Guard has found itself 13 years after DFO merger.

Communications, equipment problems beset rescue operation in capsizing — report
By ALISON AULD The Canadian Press, 2008-12-21

Search and rescue operations during the fatal capsizing of a sealing boat last March were beset by communications problems and equipment failures, says a report into the incident off Nova Scotia.

The Search and Rescue Operation Report highlighted several challenges the different branches of the departments of Fisheries and Defence faced when the 12-metre L'Acadien II struck a chunk of ice and went down off Cape Breton while under tow by the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir William Alexander.

But it also pointed to systemic deficiencies that have long hampered the work of search and rescue, or SAR, crews and the coast guard on the Atlantic coast.

In particular, the 44-page document cites the difficulty of having enough coast guard vessels available to patrol the coastal area because they are overtasked or unserviceable due to maintenance issues.

" placed on the CCGS Sir William Alexander ... are indicative of a systemic problem with offshore SAR coverage that regularly result in the ... use of less capable vessels for primary SAR coverage or restrictions placed on vessels due to the requirements of other programs,'' the document states in reference to the icebreaker that was hauling the sealing boat through the ice.

"Often a single vessel secured in Dartmouth (Nova Scotia) is used to cover both SAR zones, in effect providing poor coverage to all offshore areas.''

The report, prepared by members of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax, said that vessels are increasingly being called on to handle a multitude of programs at the same time, leaving them stretched and at times unable to respond promptly.

In the case of L'Acadien II, the small fishing boat that capsized and claimed the lives of four of its six crew, the Alexander icebreaker was tasked to deliver three services. It was supposed to be on 30-minute search and rescue standby, help the RCMP in patrolling an anti-sealing vessel and provide icebreaking assistance.

The report states that a 1993 SAR Needs Analysis says two patrol vessels are always needed to cover the area off Nova Scotia.

"With limited resources, multiple high profile program demands and unscheduled maintenance issues it is apparently becoming more difficult,'' the report states, warning that the two vessels are urgently required at all times.

"Otherwise, at some point a major SAR will occur ... with no capable coast guard vessel available.''

L'Acadien II lost rudder control last March 28 after going through thick ice at the start of the annual seal hunt and radioed for assistance.

The report states that another icebreaker, the Des Groseilliers, responded to the sealing boat but failed to tell the rescue centre that the vessel was disabled. Nor did it inform anyone that it did not provide an escort to L'Acadien II, instead leaving it in the ice to assist another boat — a decision the document says infuriated the sealing boat's ill-fated skipper.

Communications between Ice Operations — a branch of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans — and the rescue centre were also flawed. The report says that the two offices were working "independently,'' with the rescue centre unaware that Ice Ops had said icebreakers should not be tasked to escort sealing vessels.

Also, information coming into the rescue centre was not being shared appropriately.

"There was a breakdown of communication between the centres for this seal fishery resulting in a loss of information and situational awareness about the movements of the sealing fleet and the CCGS Des Groseilliers,'' the document says.

Maj. Dennis Maguire of the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre said communications were a factor in the incident and that officials have already started trying to improve the situation between the different groups.

"We're getting more co-operation among the various entities so that the rescue co-ordination centre is liaising with various other entities so everyone's aware of what each other's jobs are,'' he said. "We've learned some lessons.''

The report also outlines a range of equipment problem that affected everything from the aircraft called on to help, to the gear used by divers to try and rescue sealers trapped in the sinking vessel.

The standby Cormorant helicopter was delayed because of a technical problem, a Hercules airplane was deemed unserviceable and rescue centre crew couldn't fax information to both icebreakers likely because of deficiencies with the high frequency radio system.

Crew also couldn't get through to the Cormorant because it has HF radio, something Maguire said will be changed by next May when the fleet is geared up with satellite capability. A kit used for overturned vessels was not equipped to be dropped from a plane, so SAR technicians on the Cormorant had to jury-rig it to be deployed by parachute.

The authors state that none of the problems cited in the report could have changed the tragic outcome, but make it clear that a lot of glitches could have been avoided.

Reports by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada and Transport Canada concluded that the coast guard followed proper procedure, but that it needs to develop a policy on towing vessels through ice.

This latest report found that there "are no national coast guard guidelines or procedures for rescuing survivors from capsized vessels'' and recommended it develop policies, while acquiring proper gear for such operations.

A team has been created in the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to look at all the recommendations from the series of federal reports into the accident. The department says a plan is expected early in 2009 on how it should move forward.

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