The issue of emergency response services (ERS) at
Canadian airports presents a complex policy problem for the Minister of
scale ERS interventions are low-probability but potentially high-consequence
precautionary ERS call-outs are a daily event in Canada.
In drawing up an ERS policy, the Minister, who is statutorily responsible
for all aviation and airport safety matters in Canada, in effect determines
which air travelers (and aircrews) receive ERS and which will not. His policy
also dictates whether the user (i.e. the airline passenger) or the taxpayer must
cover the cost of those services. As with any policy, questions arise concerning equity (i.e.
distribution and degree) balance of both costs and benefits, and the opportunity
cost of investing these resources elsewhere.
While it should certainly be informed by technical, historical, legal and
economic perspectives, the Minister’s policy ultimately involves political
considerations, as it greatly affects the outcome of aircraft accidents and
could result in the preservation or loss of human lives.
Canada's ERS policy is the focus of this 500-page study.
The issue is again complicated by variables such as passenger volumes at given airports and the size and number of the aircraft using those airports. Further complications arise when one considerers the accident rate of airliners using the larger airports are 15 times better than small aircraft using the smaller airports. There are also considerations that are largely intangible. These include costs and benefits and who should accrue them.
The problem has been further exacerbated by a decade of financial restraint at federally owned, operated or subsidized airports, culminating in Transport Canada's 1994 declaration of its National Airports Policy (NAP), which effectively ended federal involvement in the day-to-day operation of airports. Under NAP, some 137 airports formerly owned, operated or subsidized by Transport Canada were slated for transfer to private or local concerns.
On 1 December 1997, after two years of fractious consultations with various members of the aviation community, Transport Canada promulgated CAR (Canadian Aviation Regulation) 303, covering Canada's 28 largest airports. Airline pilots, flight attendants and firefighters and fire chiefs had argued for higher standards; airports and airlines for less onerous standards.
Although CAR 303 required Canada’s 28 largest airports to have on-site ERS, the 250 or so medium and smaller airports hosting scheduled air service required only an Emergency Response Plan – essentially, a list of phone numbers to call in the event of an emergency. At these airports, response times of 20-40 minutes were typical under ideal conditions. In at least one case, it took 120 minutes to rescue the survivors of a crash that occurred within 1 kilometre of the airport - with the loss of at least one, if not more lives. In addition, the NAP ended operating subsidies extended to these medium and smaller airports. These subsidies had been generated in the past by the profitable Toronto, Montreal-Dorval and Vancouver airports, and were cross-fed within the former Transport Canada airports group to the smaller airports to help pay for ERS and other operating expenses. With federal operation of the airports now over, and along with it, the cessation of cross-funding, nearly all the medium and smaller airports that once had on-site ERS were forced to close their firehalls and revert instead to arrangements with the nearest fire station serving the local area or municipality, if there was one. Several smaller airports have elected to keep on-site ERS, (e.g. Hamilton, Ontario and Stephenville, Newfoundland) and a few have benefited from on-site military facilities (Comox, BC and Bagotville, Quebec). However, for the vast majority, municipal fire halls, if they exist, are 10-40 minutes away from the airport, rendering them incapable of providing a life-saving service. More than a few are manned by volunteers, adding yet further delay and uncertainty.
Most travelers are unaware that these airports, many of which previously enjoyed a vigorous fire-fighting service, have sold their fire- trucks and leased out their fire-halls to commercial or other concerns.
On 16 December 1997, barely two weeks after CAR 303 was
proclaimed in law, an Air Canada Regional Jet crashed on a foggy night during an
aborted landing at Fredericton, New Brunswick, one of the 28 designated airports
with mandatory on-site ERS. Although
the aircraft was destroyed and several people seriously injured, there were
miraculously no fatalities. It took
the one airport fire-fighter who was required to be on duty and who was just
about to go off shift without a replacement about 15 minutes to locate the
aircraft on the airport premises. This prompted numerous questions in the media
about the adequacy of the new CAR. Within
a week of the accident, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs publicized its
deep misgivings about the new regulation. Coming
just before Christmas, Transport Canada publicly downplayed these concerns.
This criticism, primarily from fire fighters and fire chiefs, noted that Canada is under international obligation to provide a Rescue Fire Fighting Service at its international airports and take into account the Recommended Practices of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), whose world headquarters are in Montreal. These provisions include:
Rescue and fire fighting equipment and services shall be provided at an
Recommendation - The operational objective of the rescue and fire fighting
service should be to achieve response times of two minutes, and not exceeding
three minutes to the end of each runway, as well as to any other part of the
movement area, in optimum conditions of visibility and surface conditions.
As an ICAO member state, Canada is implicitly free to set its own standards for domestic airports, although differing standards obviously raise important policy questions. Prior to the NAP, Transport Canada's policy provided a near-ICAO level of Rescue Fire-Fighting service to both the international and domestic airports that it owned, operated or subsidized. The NAP changed that policy.
The fire fighters and fire chiefs pointed out that
current Canadian ERS standards failed to meet ICAO SARPS by:
neither recognizing or resourcing Rescue operations (it deals only with fire-fighting);
not recognizing the need for first vehicles to respond within 2 minutes (3 at the most);
did not originally recognize the need for all vehicles to be in place within 4 minutes (Transport Canada has since taken steps to address this deficiency);
not requiring vehicles to reach the end of the farthest runway within that time (only the mid-point); and
allowing remission of standards during the quietest 10% of airport operations and at other times that were more lax than those permitted under ICAO..
Five weeks later, the Minister
of Transport commissioned an independent review of emergency response at
airports in Canada. The result
of this four-month $115,000 review was deemed by many stakeholders to be
both inadequate and inconclusive, prompting CADMUS Corporate Solutions Limited
to conduct, pro bono publico, its own evaluation of the ERS
situation at airports in Canada.
After trying unsuccessfully for almost a month to table the report with the Minister, CADMUS released its report publicly in December 1998, noted that the independent review did not carry out its assigned terms of reference, which included conducting a historical review of the ERS situation and making international comparisons with other standards. The CADMUS report reviewed the turbulent history of ERS in Canada in considerable detail, including several major crashes in which ERS played an important role. Moreover, in making an international comparison, the CADMUS report found that in contrast to statements made by Transport Canada, CAR 303 did not meet all of the minimum requirements of ICAO, or of other peer countries. The CARs also fell far short of other standards for aircraft rescue and fire-fighting profession, including those of the National Fire Prevention Association (NFPA) and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC).
The CADMUS report pointed out that ERS has also been the subject of attention at two public inquiries into aviation safety in Canada; the (Dubin) Commission of Inquiry into Aviation Safety in the early 1980s, and the (Moshansky) Commission of Inquiry into the Air Ontario Crash at Dryden in the early 1990s. Both implicitly assumed that Canada would continue to meet ICAO standards and recommended practices. The latter, in particular, was critical of both Transport Canada's monitoring of ERS and the performance of managers at the Dryden airport with respect of the ERS during the fatal crash of an F-28 on 10 March 1989. Both Commissions supported the need for a vigorous rescue fire-fighting program as an integral part of the aviation safety net.
Ironically, in 1987, two years before the Dryden
accident, Transport Canada commissioned an in-depth of ERS.
This six-part study, known as the 1988 Sypher:Mueller Report, included an
excellent comparative analysis with other countries.
However, it also contained what it called an Analysis of Risks, Costs and
Benefits. This aspect of the Sypher:Mueller report was seriously flawed by
numerous methodological, evidentiary and conceptual problems.
In any event, the Sypher:Mueller Report, tabled only 3 months prior to
the deadly Dryden crash, recommended that Transport Canada reduce the number of
airports with on-site ERS from 122 to 48, but recommended the rescue function be
retained and that the overall service should meet ICAO standards and those of
peer states. It further recommended that airports being served by
turbine-powered aircraft with 30 or more seats, (i.e. Hawker-Siddely 748,
ATR-42, Dash 8, Saab 340 and Shorts
360) also have ERS with rescue capability. On the other hand, the Sypher:Mueller
report recommended removing Rescue Fire Fighting capability from all other
By 1995, Transport Canada closed all its firehalls at smaller airports (Category 1 to 4 -- up to Dash 8 series 100/200 aircraft and equivalent). This was done without public consultation. Furthermore, as the result of the 1994 National Airports Policy, only the top 28 airports would require an on-site Aircraft Fire-Fighting service, in contrast to the Rescue Fire-Fighting service required by ICAO and the more stringent standards of the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs (CAFC). This went considerably beyond the recommendations of the Sypher:Mueller report.
The CADMUS report examines Sypher:Mueller’s purported Cost Benefit Analysis in detail, noting that airport owners and operators are legally required to take reasonable care of their invitees (i.e. passengers). The loss of life or equipment as the result of fire at any airport is likely to result in litigation. Although the United States Federal Aviation Administration currently values a life at $2.7 million US, this figure is considerably below what other US agencies use and is less than half of what experts and the US courts have set in recent cases for wrongful death. CADMUS notes that TC uses a variable figure for the value of life that is much less than the unreasonably low FAA figure. Under the new post NAP environment, many Airport Officers and Directors have reviewed their liability exposure and have arranged for adequate public liability and Director and Officer insurance. This, of course, offers no comfort to persons who may suffer a loss, including any victims or their families.
Uncertainties about the severity and probability of accidents and the cost of ERS have made it a very disputatious topic. Various stakeholders hold strongly divergent views, with airlines and many airports generally expressing concern about the costs vs. the benefits, while passenger groups, flight and cabin crew and professional fire-fighters express concern about the inadequacy of the present Canadian standards.
The CADMUS report points out that regardless of the level of ERS prescribed by law, Transport Canada also requires an aggressive, “fair but firm” inspection and enforcement process to ensure that Canadians are provided with that level of service. There is considerable doubt as to whether Transport Canada has the regulatory tools, personnel and resources to undertake such a program. There are also serious frustrations for members of the travelling public who wish to inform themselves of timely and accurate information on an airport's compliance with such public safety regulations.
Moreover, the CADMUS report reveals that Transport Canada has been less than candid in its ERS pronouncements. Departmental publications have been defensive and in several cases, notably inaccurate. More disturbingly, the well-founded expressions of legitimate concern for public safety by the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees and others have been discounted and even ridiculed.
When the first edition of the CADMUS was made public in December 1998, Transport Canada's policy provided two levels of ERS service in Canada: at best, a limited and substandard ERS for the top 28 airports handling about 92.5% of Canada’s 78 million passengers. Of these, only 90% of movements are required to be covered, leaving up to 7.8 million passengers without ERS. Moreover, at about 250 medium and smaller airports handling about 7.5% of the passenger traffic, or about 6 million passengers required no on site ERS at all. Epidemiological studies show that fire and smoke is the number one cause of death in survivable aircraft accidents – the type that occur at or near airports. Fatal accidents at Baie Comeau and Sept Iles Quebec in 1998 and 1999 and numerous non-fatal accidents with lengthy response times highlighted the problem at these airports. As a result, 12 million and as many as 35 million passengers are in jeopardy at Canadian airports in case of emergency.
In April 1999, the Minister of Transport introduced
proposed new regulations for the medium and small airports.
Over the period of a years worth of consultations, these proposals, which
were substandard compared to TC’s previous ERS and to ICAO SARPs and NFPA
standards, were again watered down under heavy pressure from airports and
airlines, over the protests of fire-fighters, fire chiefs, pilots, flight
attendants and passengers. The
current regulations, now in Gazette I form, provide for a 3-minute response time
from ‘mobilization’ (a meaningless term) or 20 minutes from alarm, using
off-site equipment. Quantities of extinguishing agent can be as much as 5 times
inferior to the ICAO Standards, and even more deficient when compared to NFPA
standards. Training for the
responders, who will likely be assigned other airport duties, is required every
three years. Although there are funds to cover capital costs, such as vehicles,
there is no funding for operating costs. This puts many medium and small
communities in a very difficult financial, legal and ethical position, as they
accepted transfer of these airports from TC on the clear understanding that
on-site ERS would not be required.
Owing to the complexity of the topic, the implications of this policy are not widely understood, even in the aviation community. It is much less understood in the public eye, where the assumption is widely made that ERS services will be provided as and when required. Along with the over-riding desire to sell off publicly owned airports, a causal factor in this issue has been the systematic exclusion in the policy development process of the party who ultimately pays the costs and who has the most to lose, namely, airline passengers.
Among the CADMUS conclusions:
CAR 303 is inadequate: critical criteria such as
rescue and response times are lower today than they were under Transport
Canada’s previous standards and fail to meet ICAO SARPs;
The lack of on-site ERS with a trained and properly
supported Rescue function means that 250 smaller airports hosting scheduled
passenger flights with aircraft ranging from up to Dash 8s and even Boeing
727 and 737 have little or no protection in an emergency. Transport Canada’s proposals to remedy this situation have
fallen far short of ICAO SARPs, and far short of what Transport Canada had
been in place in before 1994.
Transport Canada is ignoring the lessons of the past
and the findings and recommendations of previous Commissions of Inquiry into
Canada has not informed, much less consulted, airline passengers in the
development of degraded ERS standards at Canadian airports
Canada’s communications on this issue have been less that candid, raising
questions about the Department’s credibility on this issue;
travelers in Canada have no way, other than through Transport Canada’s
questionable assurances, and its access to information program which can
take as much as 6 months and which has in the past provided false
information, to verify the effectiveness of ERS at Canadian airports; and
ICAO/NFPA level of ERS could be paid for out of the $200M or more that
Transport Canada collects from lease payments from its top 28 airports.
This revenue represents the interest on taxpayer’s investment in
the airport infrastructure. Should
this source of revenue not be available, a $1-2 per ticket surcharge on all
travelers tickets would pay for an ICAO/NFPA level of ERS at virtually every
airport in Canada where there was scheduled air service.
Among the CADMUS recommendations:
Canada needs an ERS policy based on
effectiveness, efficiency & fairness;
policy should immediately re-adopt ICAO as the minimum standard for ERS and
move towards the more rigorous NFPA standards in the medium term;
standard of ERS should be provided to all passengers on scheduled air
service aircraft with 10 or more seats and all jet charter operations;
or chartered airline passengers who are injured or killed as the result of
an aircraft accident at Canadian airports should be covered by insurance
that offers them or their estate timely and generous benefits;
Airline passengers must be invited to actively
participate in developing and reviewing ERS policy;
Information on the readiness and performance of ERS services at Canadian airports must be made available to the public in a timely manner.
WHAT DO YOU THINK OF ERS IN CANADA?
This report is currently undergoing a major revision.
A copy of the current (2nd) edition is available for $40 USD;
a copy of the new report, expected late 2000, will be available for $50 USD.
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