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Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) in Canada

Canadian Coast Guard Search and Rescue (SAR) Program Mission Statement

To save and protect lives in the maritime environment

To fulfill our mission, our objectives are to:

These objectives will help us provide an effective SAR service for all those at risk in the maritime environment in Canada.

National Search and Rescue Program (NSP)

The primary goal of the National Search and Rescue Program is to save lives at risk throughout Canada. This national program involves federal departments, volunteers, organizations, municipalities, provinces and territories, working together to provide this service. The Canadian Coast Guard is responsible for providing maritime resources in support of Search and Rescue (SAR) in areas of federal responsibility. This site is about the Canadian Coast Guard SAR Program.

“Search and Rescue comprises the search for, and the provision of aid to, persons, ships or other craft which are, or are feared to be, in distress or imminent danger.”

Overview of Canadian Coast Guard

As part of the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG) is the principal civilian maritime operational arm of the Government of Canada. The Canadian Coast Guard operates all DFO vessels and provides services for SAR, Environmental Response, Icebreaking, Marine Navigation Services, and Marine Communications and Traffic Services. The Coast Guard also provides maritime support and services to departmental programs in Science and Fisheries Conservation and Protection, as well as to other agencies at all levels of government.

The Canadian Coast Guard is responsible for a number of SAR tasks. These include the detection of maritime incidents and with the assistance of the Department of National Defence (DND), the co-ordination, control and conduct of SAR operations in maritime SAR situations within Canadian areas of federal responsibility; the provision of maritime resources to help with aeronautical SAR operations as necessary; and, when and where available, the provision of SAR resources to assist in humanitarian and civil incidents within provincial, territorial or municipal areas. The CCG also co-ordinates, controls and conducts SAR Prevention programs to reduce the number and severity of maritime SAR incidents.

Provider of the primary maritime SAR response element, the Canadian Coast Guard augments it by the use of multi-tasked and secondary SAR vessels. Furthermore, the CCG oversees the activities of the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA), a volunteer organization.

Department of National Defence

In 1976, the Prime Minister appointed the Minister of National Defence as the Lead Minister for SAR (LMSAR). The LMSAR is responsible for the co-ordination of the National SAR Program (NSP) and the development of national SAR policies in conjunction with other Ministers. The LMSAR is the designated national spokesperson and is charged with ensuring that the national SAR system operates effectively.

DND delivers primary air SAR services for both air and maritime incidents; provides a high level of secondary SAR support from its aircraft; and, co-ordinates the activities of the Civil Air Search and Rescue Association (CASARA), a volunteer organization.

Under the SAR program, DND and the Canadian Coast Guard co-ordinate the response to air and maritime SAR incidents through the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centres (JRCCs).

Federal SAR Co-ordination

Interdepartmental Committee on Search and Rescue

The Interdepartmental Committee on Search and Rescue (ICSAR) was established in 1976 by the Prime Minister, to ensure the effective national co-ordination and delivery of SAR services. The various federal departments involved in SAR are represented at ICSAR. ICSAR reports to the LMSAR.

ICSAR has the following responsibilities:

The following agencies are represented by senior management at ICSAR meetings: DND; DFO (Canadian Coast Guard); Transport Canada (Aviation); Solicitor General (Royal Canadian Mounted Police); Environment Canada (Atmospheric Environment Services); Canadian Heritage (Parks Canada); Privy Council Office; Treasury Board Secretariat; Natural Resources Canada; Emergency Preparedness Canada; Indian and Northern Development Canada; and the National SAR Secretariat.

The National Search and Rescue Secretariat

The National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS) gives support and advice to the LMSAR. NSS is responsible for co-ordinating and assists in developing the NSP. The Executive Director of the NSS chairs ICSAR.

How Maritime SAR is Delivered in Canada

The Maritime SAR Program is a full time program activity. Its main goal is to reduce the loss of life in the maritime environment. The CCG's SAR Program has four important elements: management and monitoring; operation and volunteers.

Management and Monitoring

The goal of management and monitoring is to ensure that the SAR Program operates at maximum efficiency. This is accomplished by ensuring that SAR coverage requirements are continuously adjusted to meet changing needs and that specialized primary SAR units are deployed as required. To further enhance response capabilities, SAR Program management co-operates with other program managers in the deployment of multi-tasked and secondary resources. These combined efforts ensure that capable emergency services will be readily available when and where they are most likely to be needed.


Asortment of rescue supplies presented in front of a red CCG van

Operations, which include search, rescue and incident co-ordination, form the heart of the marine SAR system. Canadian Coast Guard SAR units are capable of responding to the vast majority of marine SAR challenges found in the Canadian environment.

This high level capability is delivered by skilled, full-time, professional crews using specialized vessels and equipment. Frequent operational exercises ensure a high level of readiness and proficiency.


Volunteer assistance is a key element in maximizing the efficiency of SAR operations, prevention and safety-related activities. The Canadian Coast Guard supports all forms of volunteerism relating to marine search and rescue through the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA).


The following categories of vessels are used in maritime SAR incidents:

Primary SAR Vessels

A primary SAR vessel is a specially designed, equipped and crewed vessel that has SAR as its main responsibility. These vessels are stationed in areas that have a high risk of SAR incidents. These vessels bear the common Canadian Coast Guard red and white fleet colours with the words "RESCUE/SAUVETAGE" clearly visible. These vessels maintain a maximum 30 minute state-of-readiness but are typically ready to respond the moment an alert is received.

Multi-tasked SAR Vessels

Multi-tasked SAR vessels are other Canadian Coast Guard vessels that are tasked to deliver the SAR Program and at least one other operational program. They have to remain within a specific SAR area while they are multi-tasked to the SAR Program and maintain all SAR operational standards. Multi-tasked vessels increase efficiency, reduce costs to the government and stand in for primary SAR vessels when necessary.

Secondary SAR Vessels

Secondary SAR vessels are all other government vessels.

Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary Vessels

The Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA) is a highly effective volunteer organization made up of five non-profit associations and a national council which assists the Coast Guard in SAR response and prevention activities. Each year the Auxiliary receives a small amount of government funding to cover certain expenses and insurance while engaged in authorized SAR operations and activities. Tax-deductible donations from the public and other organizations also help fund the Auxiliary. The Canadian Coast Guard assists the CCGA with the specialized SAR training necessary to become, and remain, a member. In return, the CCG may rely upon the approximately 3,979 members and 1,133 vessels of the Auxiliary to augment its maritime SAR capability.

Vessels Of Opportunity

A vessel of opportunity is any other vessel not mentioned above, close enough to provide assistance to a vessel in distress. Under the Canada Shipping Act and international law, every vessel at sea is required to assist in a distress situation.

Rescue Co-ordination and Alerting

Rescue Co-ordination Centres and Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres

The Canadian Coast Guard jointly staffs three Rescue Coordination Centres (JRCCs) with the Canadian Forces. The JRCCs are located at Victoria, British Columbia, Trenton, Ontario, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. The Canadian Coast Guard also operates a Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre (MRSC) at Quebec City, Quebec. The function of a MRSC is to reduce the JRCC's workload in areas of high marine activity. These centres are staffed by SAR Co-ordinators who operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year round. The maritime area for which the Canadian JRCCs/MRSCs are collectively responsible for is more than 5.3 million square kilometres.

The JRCCs/MRSCs are responsible for the planning, co-ordination, conduct and control of SAR operations. JRCCs/MRSCs have highly trained staff, detailed operational plans and an effective communications system. Once an JRCC/MRSC is notified that a person(s) is in danger, the SAR Co-ordinator begins to organize the rescue. All available information about the person(s) in danger is gathered and recorded and the positions of potential assisting resources in the area of the incident are determined. SAR Co-ordinators are trained to evaluate various situations and send the most effective resources to deal with a particular incident. In complex and major incidents, many resources are often sent or tasked to assist.

On-Scene Co-ordinator

In large searches involving many resources, an On-Scene Co-ordinator (OSC) for the incident may be chosen by the SAR Co-ordinator. The OSC is the local contact for the SAR Co-ordinator. The OSC gives direction to the resources involved on where and how to search and regularly reports progress. The OSC is usually the Commanding Officer of a government vessel with an experienced crew.

Rescue Alerting, Detection and Communications

Visual, audible and electronic methods are used by vessels to indicate distress. Visual methods include items such as distress flares and international signal flags. Audible methods include whistles and horns. Electronic methods include radios and beacons. The following are a few highlights.

Global Maritime Distress and Safety System

The Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) came into effect on 1 February 1999. GMDSS is a digital electronic communications system which sends distress and safety information. It applies to vessels over 300 Gross Registered Tons and all international passenger vessels. GMDSS divides the world into four types of communications coverage (sea areas A1 to A4), which determine the appropriate terrestrial or satellite means of communication to use.

In Canada, as a result of consultations with the Canadian maritime industry, it has been decided to implement sea areas A1 on the east and west coasts. Outside of A1 will be an A3 sea area with an A4 sea area in the Arctic.


COSPAS/SARSAT is an international SAR satellite system used to detect and locate signals from distress beacons. Four founding nations, Canada, United States, France, and Russia (formerly USSR) created the COSPAS/SARSAT system. Since inception many other nations have joined. Satellites were first launched in 1982 and 1983, with the first three lives saved during experimental testing of the system. These three people were Canadians involved in an airplane crash in the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia. Since then thousands of lives have been saved using this system.


Beacons use radios signals to indicate distress. Each unit has a built-in transmitter and batteries. Two main beacon types interest the Coast Guard: an Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT), designed for aircraft and an Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon (EPIRB), designed for vessels. Both transmit a radio signal when activated. Unlike most ELTs, EPIRBs transmit a coded message that indicates the identity of the beacon in use. The owner of an EPIRB is required to register the beacon with the National Search and Rescue Secretariat. Details such as the owner's name and a description of the vessel are recorded on a computer database. This allows the RCC/MRSC Co-ordinator to look up vital information contained in the EPIRB registry to assist in any rescue. Both ELTs and EPIRBs are detected by COSPAS/SARSAT satellites when activated. A third type of beacon, which operates through the satellites for use on land, is the Personal Locator Beacon class.

Marine Communications and Traffic Services

Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) is the Branch of the Canadian Coast Guard that provides communications and vessel traffic services to the sea-going public. MCTS monitors for distress radio signals; provides the communications link between vessels in distress and the JRCC/MRSC; sends safety information; handles public communication; and, regulates the flow of vessel traffic in some areas. MCTS is an important link in the SAR system.

Canadian Coast Guard Program Effectiveness

Trained professionals, vessels and equipment are important elements of the maritime SAR system. SAR in Canada works well because the network is designed to monitor, co-ordinate and respond to calls for assistance as part of an integrated system. Canada has one of the most effective SAR systems in the world.

System Effectiveness

In the international community, one of the most important ways to determine the effectiveness of a SAR system is to look at the ratio of lives saved to lives at risk in maritime distress. A distress situation exists when human life is in grave danger. In Canada, on average, 97 percent of the lives at risk in maritime distress are saved each year. That is about 2,200 lives per year. Another 18,000 people are helped each year in non-distress maritime incidents by the SAR system. During 2010, there were about 6,000 maritime SAR incidents in Canada.

Environmental Challenges

Canada's coastlines offer some of the world's most challenging environmental conditions for maritime SAR activity. On the East Coast, there are severe sea states and gale force winds, freezing spray, ice cover and fog. During winter storms, waves can reach up to 30 metres in height and winds measuring 160 kilometres per hour are not uncommon. During the spring and summer months, large areas of fog reduce visibility to near zero. The West Coast has similar weather conditions, but the temperatures are more stable. Other areas such as the Great Lakes and the Arctic, provide their own unique challenges.

Cost to the Taxpayer

The Canadian Coast Guard's planned spending forfiscal year 2011-2012 is $736,405,000, of this amount, $136,959,000 is for Search and Rescue Services broken down as follows:

Cost to the Taxpayer in 2011-2012
SAR direct program operating $ 16,106,000
Fleet Operational Readiness operating for SAR services $ 89,372,000
Shore-based asset readiness operating for SAR services $ 16,560,000
Sub-total operating: $122,038,000
SAR Major Capital $ 10,000,000
SAR Grants and Contributions (Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary) $ 4,921,000
Total: $136,959,000

The operation of the SAR fleet accounts for most of the Canadian Coast Guard SAR Program costs. For 2011-2012,73% of the operating planned spending for SAR is spent on the fleet. A further 13% is for the directcosts in the management, monitoring and administration of the program nationally and an additional 14% is spent on lifecycle management of the SAR assets.

The major capital cost identified in 2011-2012 is for the investment in one air cushion vehicle to replace the capacity of the CCGS Penac and it will be 98% dedicated for SAR services. The major capital figure for SAR fluctuates from year to year as it is dependent on the annual investment plan that takes into consideration the estimated operational life of assets. The operational life expectancy for SAR vessels varies from 5 to 20 years. SAR services also benefits from investment in other vessels designed for multi-tasking rather than SAR single-purpose. The investment costs for these multi-purpose vessels are not included in the cost noted above.

The Grants and Contributions figure represents the total money given to the Auxiliary tocarryout authorized activities related to maritime SAR operations, SAR Prevention and other safety related activities.

Data sources

Operating and Grants and Contribution costs: Canadian Coast Guard Business Plan 2011-2014, Section 5, Overview of Financial, Table 1 & 2.

Major Capital costs (Air Cushion Vehicle): Canadian Coast Guard Investment Plan 2011/12 - 2015/16, page 54-55. the total estimated cost (TEC) of this project is $27M. (CCGS Penac: 98% for SAR, 2% for Aids to Navigation (ATN). There are also planned investments to procure 10 SAR lifeboats beginning in 2013/14. The total estimated cost for this project is $90M (pape 52 & 53).

Unnecessary Use of the SAR System

System of Last Resort

Safety at sea is a personal responsibility. If all other methods of preventing an accident are unsuccessful, the SAR system is available as a last resort. Regulations and standards are in place to cover the construction, equipping, crewing and operations of vessels. Numerous types of learning materials, courses and institutions available to provide valuable information to operators. Knowledge and awareness are key elements of personal responsibility and reduce the risk of having an accident.

Ensure Self-Reliance

Our program aims to constantly ensure that our clients are self-reliant and to prevent SAR incidents. Unfortunately, a very small percentage of cases each year involve abuse of the system.

False activation of the SAR system is a serious matter and is dealt with under the Criminal Code of Canada.

Some cases involving use of the SAR system are clearly preventable or unreasonable. These cases cost the taxpayers of Canada, but more importantly, they involve resources that may be needed for genuine SAR and place the rescuers in unnecessary danger. Currently, the Canadian Coast Guard is looking at ways to prevent these types of cases from occurring.

Canadian SAR System and the International Community

A key element to a successful Global SAR Plan is to achieve world-wide SAR coverage by responsible nations. Canada is considered a world leader in SAR and the Canadian Coast Guard is constantly asked by foreign governments to provide expert advice on developing or building new SAR systems. Whenever possible, the Canadian Coast Guard supports these requests.

The Canadian Coast Guard is also involved in international activities in support of other Canadian objectives, including the Middle-East Peace Process and the Association of South-East Asian Nations Regional Forum. SAR is invariably a major component of these activities.

Support to Canadian Industry

When the Canadian Coast Guard is involved in international activities, it regularly invites Canadian companies to participate. Promotion of Canadian business and trade outside Canada is an important government objective.

Canada's leadership in terrestrial and space-based communications technology; systems engineering; and crisis and emergency management, match well with the Canadian Coast Guard's leadership role in the world SAR community. All of these activities help to support Canadian international business and trade.

A Final Note

The purpose of this site is to create an awareness of the Canadian Coast Guard's role in the Canadian SAR system. Every day of the year, men and women of the Canadian Coast Guard provide SAR services, often at personal risk, to those in need of assistance. The Canadian Coast Guard is extremely proud of their contributions as well as of the contributions of volunteers, particularly the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, in the delivery of these maritime SAR services.

The Canadian SAR system is one of the most effective in the world. The challenge is to keep improving the system and increase the number of lives saved, while reducing costs to the taxpayers of Canada. We hope all Canadians will be proud of this humanitarian system.

For more information, please contact:

National Coordination Centre
Canadian Coast Guard
200 Kent St, 6th floor
Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K1A 0E6

Tel:  +1-613-998-1497
Fax: +1-613-991-9000

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