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Coast Guard says Italy’s search and rescue assistance ‘Plan C’

By Jessica Bruno      
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The Coast Guard contracted a Nova Scotia emergency response company last week to field distress calls from mariners off the coast of Newfoundland, and said that from now on, relying on a free emergency service based out of Rome, Italy would be “Plan C.”

Praxes, a Dartmouth, Nova Scotia-based company that provides around-the-clock access to medical professionals over the phone to people in remote locations, has won the year-long contract, worth $118,000. They will advise Canadian search and rescue teams whether or not they need to intervene in a medical emergency at sea.

The contract did not come soon enough for Shang Rideout and his father Ronald, who felt ill while boating off of the coast of Newfoundland on May 8. Shang called Canadian emergency response for help, and was patched to a doctor with the International Radio Medical Centre (CIRMS) in Rome. Reportedly, the doctor didn’t know what country he was calling from and struggled to help. 

Anger subsequently erupted in the House of Commons over the incident, and opposition MPs questioned why Mr. Rideout’s call was answered by a free service based in Europe. 

“It sounds ridiculous. If it wasn’t true it would be funny,” said NDP MP Jack Harris (St. John’s East, Nfld.).

Jody Thomas, the deputy commissioner of operations for Fisheries and Oceans, said the Canadian Coast Guard has been using CIRMS when Canadian response services were unable to answer for years without any problems.

Praxes has been providing remote medical responses for the Coast Guard since 2005, according to Fisheries and Oceans. Their most recent contract expired the week before the Rideout incident. 

Without another agreement in hand, the Coast Guard had made alternate arrangements for several days.

The Queen Elizabeth Hospital, which usually handles calls for the Halifax area, was meant to pick up the slack for the surrounding region, said Ms. Thomas, but was unable to provide the service. Because of this, calls were sent to CIRMS.

The day after Mr. Rideout called for help, the Coast Guard signed a temporary contract with Praxes to provide medical help until a long-term contract could be tendered. On June 13, the company won the permanent job. Praxes has also supplied emergency response services to the Department of National Defence. 

“What we’re looking to do is to have a Canadian provider, a Canadian backup, and CIRM becomes, going forward, Plan C,” said Ms. Thomas.

The opposition parties have linked the incident to recent cutes to search and rescue funding, but Ms. Thomas said that isn’t the case.

Fisheries and Oceans must cut $79.3-million from its budget by 2014-2015, according to the 2012 budget. It has stated it will achieve these savings by restructuring and consolidating its operations. It’s budget before the cuts in 2012-2013 is $456.5-million.

Not all of these cuts will fall on the Coast Guard, or on search and rescue, something multiple departments have a hand in. The Coast Guard’s search and rescue budget for 2012-2013 is $35-million pre-budget cuts, according to the department’s 2012-2013 Report on Plans and Priorities.

The Coast Guard also went through a prior cutting exercise in 2010, and its effects are being felt now.

On April 30, the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John’s, Nfld. Was closed, and its work was shifted to the Joint Rescue Co-Ordination Centre in Halifax. A centre in Trenton, Ont., will also pick up more search and rescue work.

The St. John’s centre, as well as another located in Québec City, took the lead on organizing search and rescue efforts by working with the Canadian Forces and local police to co-ordinate responses.

The Quebec City location will be wound down in October and closed by spring of next year, according to Christine Collins, the national president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, which represents many of the workers being cut. It is expected to save the government $1-million, according to the NDP.

The Kitsilano Coast Guard Rescue Station in Vancouver, which is responsible for the busiest port in Canada, is also being shut down. Mr. Harris said that the base has saved 55 lives so far this year.

That station has 12 workers and is capable of dispatching a boat to an emergency between one and 30 minutes. Without the base, responding to an emergency in the area could take 30 minutes or more, said Ms. Collins. 

Mr. Harris said that on the west coast, the government will rely more on the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a force made up of volunteers on call.

More than 750 full-time Canadian Coast Guard workers have been told they could lose their jobs, as well as 100 contract workers whose terms will not be renewed. 

The NDP introduced two motioned in the House of Commons asking the government to reverse the cuts to search and rescue and improve slow emergency response times. Both were defeated in the House, the most recent on June 13.

“While we’re trying to argue for improvements in search and rescue standards and response  time, the government is actually cutting back,” said Mr. Harris.

Ms. Thomas said that the centres being closed provided “critical, excellent, work” but that modern technology means that it can be done more efficiently.

“It’s not just about saving money, by consolidating the services you then have in one location, working together as a team, the people who deploy the sea assets—so vessels, Canadian Coast Guard vessels, vessels of opportunity, National Defence vessels—along with the people who deploy the air assets to conduct a search and rescue,” she said.

She said the move to the centre in Halifax has been “enormously successful.”

Mr. Harris said that National Defence and the Canadian Coast Guard already worked together closely.

He explained that now, “we’ll have three people instead of six engaged in coordinating rescues over a vast area of ocean and the whole East Coast, the so-called Halifax region which covers some 27,000 square kilometers.”

Liberal Fisheries and Oceans critic Lawrence MacAulay (Cardigan, PEI) said that Ms. Thomas’s explanations are difficult for him to understand.

“Generally, what she’s saying is that the 700 or 800 people that were let go, all of the areas that were providing monitoring service, and saving lives, were not needed. That would be quite difficult for me to understand,” he said.

Critics are also worried about the loss of local expertise on language, dialects and geography.

Ms. Collins noted that there are about a dozen places in the Newfoundland area that are named Green Point.” 

“Those that know all the different locations can certainly respond a lot quicker than someone from Halifax or Trenton who doesn’t know the local geography,” she said.

Ms. Thomas said that the Canadian Coast Guard has high training standards and the knowledge could be learned. 

“If somebody goes in to the MRSC in Newfoundland as it was, they weren’t an instantly knowledgeable person about everything to do with Newfoundland,” she said.

The Newfoundland area will also lose one ship of the 16 Coast Guard vessels in the area.

The Canadian Coast Guard Ship Harp a search and rescue vessel built in 1986, will be decommissioned by 2015, possibly as early as spring 2013.

The Harp has a crew of seven, with at least one rescue specialist at all times, and do rescues up to 370.4 km from shore.

“The Harp is slow, she’s old, she’s not a particularly comfortable vessel for the crew in very treacherous waters, and most importantly she’s not an icebreaker,” explained Ms. Thomas.

She added that Newfoundlanders and Labradorians would not experience poorer service when the vessel is gone. 

“In fact, we think it’s an improvement in service,” she said.

She explained that contracting out the maintenance of ocean navigational aids and buoys would free up more capable ships to spend more time doing search and rescue work in the area, and that there would be no effect on emergency response time for the area.

Mr. MacAulay said that he was skeptical that cutting back on response centres and vessels would improve the service.

“On the water, five minutes can mean so much,” he added.

Prior to the latest round of cuts announced in the budget the Coast Guard was cutting its Marine Communications and Traffic Services Centres, including the shut down of at least one location

Last February, the union responsible for workers at these centres, which monitor marine traffic and communicate with mariners, said that cuts would put lives at risk.

Ms. Thomas disagrees, and said that the Canadian Coast Guard is putting a sophisticated system in place that will allow the organization to reduce the number of locations needed to provide the service.

“Mariners will hear the same voices on the radio that they always have, but rather than being in location A and B, they’re just going to be in one location,” she said.

Mr. MacAulay said that he is concerned about future of the Canadian Coast Guard, and the likelihood of further cuts to meet budget commitments, and their affect on emergency services.

The Canadian Coast Guard is in the business of safety, said Ms. Thomas.

“We would not make decisions that would impact the safety of mariners, and we are very comfortable that we are ensuring a high level of service to Canadians with the decisions that we’ve made,” she said.

But Ms. Collins said the cuts amount to a serious risk to life.

“To be blunt, mariners are going to die. It’s a matter of when, not if,” she said.

jbruno@hilltimes.com

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