By Tina Comeau
A kayaking tour involving 16 people touring the Tusket Islands took a troubling turn the morning of June 27 after the group failed to return as scheduled the night before, triggering a large-scale search and rescue effort to locate the missing people.
As military and CASARA aircraft flew overhead, Coast Guard and DFO vessels transported ground search and rescue personnel onto various islands to carry out searches. Shoreline searches were also conducted from the sea and air.
From the get-go there was some comfort in this particular search. The missing people weren’t actually missing, rather they had been placed on various islands by those organizing a simulated search and rescue (SAR) exercise to test SAR resources. But the searchers did not know where these people were and they were expected to treat the search and rescue scenario as if it were the real thing, given that this was both a training and a learning exercise.
The people and resources involved were ground search and rescue teams from Yarmouth, Clare and Barrington, DFO Tusket, which deployed a fast rescue craft (FRC) and a skiff, the Coast Guard vessels Earl Grey, Geliget and Clarks Harbour; EMO, the RCMP, CASARA (Civil Air Search and Rescue Association), two Coast Guard auxiliary fishing vessels, Nova Scotia Public Safety and Field Communications and 413 Squadron in Greenwood, which sent a Hercules airplane and a Cormorant helicopter.
At the end of the exercise, during a debriefing to discuss what went right and what went wrong, it was determined that those tasked with the effort of locating the missing kayakers went about their roles professionally.
Where things fell apart, however, was in the area of communications when the TMR (trunked mobile radio) system on board the Coast Guard vessel Earl Grey failed to work properly. This was problematic given that the Earl Grey was the on-scene coordinator of the search effort. Many SAR resources were unable to communicate directly with the Earl Grey and for part of the day messages had to be relayed via cellphone, which kept other SAR resources out of the loop from what was happening.
“It really didn’t play out the way we wanted,” said John Drake, a search and rescue preparedness officer with the Canadian Coast Guard. “We’re going to have our own little internal brief with Coast Guard . . . this is probably one of those exercises that we feel didn’t go our way.”
He said there are issues that Coast Guard will need to address.
“But as far as your participation went, we thought that everybody played really well,” Drake said.
And from the participant feedback, the majority of observations again fell to communications – and the importance of it.
Dan Fleck of DFO Tusket, for instance, noted that as the exercise wore on searchers were not being relayed updated information on how many people had been found and how many were still missing.
The exercise’s starting point, and a command centre for some, was the community hall in Comeau’s Hill. From there ground search and rescue personnel were transported to and from the Tusket Islands on board Coast Guard cutters. The Tusket FRC played a large role in transporting ground search and rescue personnel. From the Tusket FRC the searchers were brought to shore by a DFO skiff. And sometimes a third transfer was required if the searchers were being picked up from, or brought back to, the Coast Guard cutter Geliget. These boat-to-boat transfers were taking place on the water as vessels came alongside of one another.
Some of the islands that were searched, and on which some of the missing persons were found, included Murder Island, Pease Island, Ellenwood Island, Marks Island, Candlebox Island and Deep Cove. Aside from being located by searchers, other times it was a deployed flare that helped searchers detect the location of the missing people.
Regardless of how smooth, or not, that things went, everyone saw the value of having this type of exercise.
“It's very useful and I think we should have more of them,” said Kevin Volmer, a rescue specialist from the Earl Grey. “In a real event we would all be working together so we might as well practise working together.”
Around 100 people participated in the exercise, which pleased those involved in organizing the event, including Colin Grover, a marine SAR coordinator with the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC). Grover was an on-scene coordinator for the JRCC. He kept the rescue centre apprised of how the search was evolving and also had his hands full with helping to coordinate things between the SAR resources and the Earl Grey during the communication problems being experienced. He referred to the Tusket Islands as a fantastic training resource, as they are many places you can hide people.
“We even had people on Candlebox Island that were able to hide from the Hercules,” he said, making the task of finding them more challenging.
Meanwhile, the day, while serious, was not without its lighter moments, such as when a missing person with a broken ankle or another who had been strapped onto a back brace after suffering a seizure and a head injury were able to get up and walk a few minutes later. (Remember, their injuries weren’t real.) Shouted some rescuers and the missing persons themselves, “It’s a miracle!”