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Feds to close Kitsilano Coast Guard Base, despite inside pressure to keep it open

By Jessica Bruno      

‘They’re going to move ahead with this until somebody gets killed. This is Russian Roulette they’re doing,' says retired Kitsilano commanding officer Fred Moxey.

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The federal government says it will not reconsider its decision to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard Base in Vancouver, B.C., next spring, despite public pressure and recently-leaked documents showing the move is unpopular inside the rescue agency.

“The Kitsilano decision is not being re-evaluated,” stated Frank Stanek, Coast Guard spokesperson in an email to Civil Circles last week.

The Coast Guard base located in Vancouver is set to close in the spring of 2013. The move will save the search and rescue agency about $800,000 a year, the agency said, and is part of the department of Fisheries and Oceans’ savings measures under the 2012 budget. Fisheries and Oceans is expected to cut $73.9-million from its budget by 2015.  

“When we looked at what we were going to do in terms of the deficit reduction action plan we realized after an analysis of a number of different programs that we could reduce the Kitsilano Coast Guard station and change our mix of resources in Vancouver harbour without affecting safety,” explained Jody Thomas, deputy commissioner of operations for the Coast Guard.

The decision has been met with months of protests in Vancouver, including a recent 24-hour sit-in at the base on Sept. 14. 

Local Liberal MP Joyce Murray (Vancouver-Quadra, B.C.) has been collecting names for a petition to keep the base open. 

Vancouver City Council is calling for a meeting with Prime Minister Stephen Harper (Calgary Southwest, Alta.) in the light of a municipal report released Sept. 18 that concludes the closure of Kitsilano “creates a significant gap” in the search and rescue capacity in Vancouver. 

“There will be no negative impact on our ability to respond quickly and effectively to distresses in the water,” said Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield (Fredericton, N.B.) in Question Period on Sept. 19.

Retired Kitsilano commanding officer Fred Moxey has been one of the protesters, appearing at demonstrations in his uniform. Mr. Moxey said he has recently been banned from the base due to his involvement in the protests. 

Mr. Moxey said he “can’t understand” why the Coast Guard is moving ahead with its plan to close the base when it will put lives in danger.

“They’re going to move ahead with this until somebody gets killed. This is Russian Roulette they’re doing,” said the 35-year former Coast Guard veteran. 

The Vancouver harbour regularly sees thousands of recreational sailors, kayakers and canoers, as well as ferry and sea-bus traffic, cruise ship embarkations, floatplane takeoffs and landings, and freighter traffic. 

Mr. Moxey said that he felt his concerns were finally validated when he saw two leaked letters from a group of B.C. Coast Guard marine coordinators outlining their concerns about the closure to regional managers.

“We, the Maritime Coordinators of JRCC Victoria, object to the proposed closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard Base (Kits) as there was no consultation with any of the SAR [Search and Rescue] expertise at JRCC Victoria, Sea Island or Kitsilano. Closing Kits will endanger the lives of mariners,” said the group in one of the letters.  

Both letters are dated July 17 and come from the same group of coordinators. A number of Vancouver-based publications have copies of the documents. Civil Circles obtained electronic copies from a source connected to the Coast Guard.

Mr. Moxey said that the marine coordinators work on a daily basis to organize responses to emergencies.

“These controllers are the experts. These are the people who do SAR analysis of an area and determine what resources should be in that area,” he said.

The coordinators also took issue with two official Coast Guard websites dedicated to explaining the Kitsilano closure. The two web pages are called “Search and Rescue in Vancouver: Myths and Facts” and “Vancouver is Well-served by the Canadian Coast Guard.” 

“The websites are misleading to the public to the extent that they are incorrect,” state the coordinators. 

In their two-page letter they took issue with a number of facts on the sites including those about response times, the capability of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue volunteers, response times and statistics about Kitsilano’s record of saving lives. 

The sites were developed by Fisheries and Oceans workers in British Columbia and Ottawa, Mr. Stanek said, and based on information from the Coast Guard’s internal databases.

“The information and statistics these sites contain have been validated by search and rescue experts and the Canadian Coast Guard stands by these facts,” he said. 

One of the major points of contention in the fight to keep Kitsilano open is the role of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, formerly known as the Coast Guard Auxiliary, a body of on-call volunteers.

“RCMSAR cannot replace Kits. We are very concerned with the management’s representation of RCMSAR as ‘highly trained.’ We know this is not the case,” state the marine coordinators in their letter.

Ms. Thomas disagreed. 

“The minimum standards for training are quite different from what the individual stations actually have within their members. There are a number of members who are paramedics, as an example,” she said, adding that using the volunteer search and rescue was similar to the use of volunteer firefighters.

Mr. Moxey, who said he has trained auxiliary members, agreed with the comparison but said it is not a positive one. 

“Would you want to wait for maybe 30 minutes while your house was burning and your family was still inside? Then when the people come on site, that could be the first fire they’ve been to in years,” said Mr. Moxey.

He added that the volunteers are useful as backup to professional search and rescue teams. 

Ms. Thomas said that the Coast Guard is satisfied that volunteer response times are adequate, and that the organization is still working with the volunteer organization “to determine exactly what our expectation is.” She added that there are currently eight volunteer units around Vancouver harbour.

The government is also giving the volunteers $100,000 “that they will use to augment training, bring on new volunteers, and increase their capacity,” explained Ms. Thomas.

Professional Coast Guard units have dedicated commanders as well as search and rescue, marine firefighting and medical experts on board, noted Mr. Moxey.

Ms. Thomas said that Coast Guard management, including herself, met with the letter writing coordinators.

“We’ve worked with that team to help them understand why the decisions were made,” she said. She declined to provide further details of the meeting. 

Kitsilano had responded to 226 calls in 2012 by the end of August, according to the Union of Transportation Employees, which represents Coast Guard employees. The base is the busiest in Canada and responds to an average of 350 calls a year. 

After Kitsilano is closed, a Coast Guard base on Sea Island, to the southwest of Vancouver, will be responsible for emergency calls. 

A report by the City of Vancouver to city council released Sept. 18 states Sea Island’s service area is 40 miles, covering the greater Vancouver area, south to Sidney, west to Nanaimo and north to Squamish. The response time from Sea Island to the inner Vancouver harbour is  30 minutes in good weather. 

The Sea Island base currently handles about 250 calls a year, according to the Vancouver city report. 

West Coast Fisheries and Oceans NDP critic Fin Donnelly (New Westminster-Coquitlam, B.C.) said Sea Island is too far away and not properly equipped to handle calls, while the Kitsilano base is better-positioned.

“This is a strategically located base, it provides a good level of service for a reasonable amount of tax dollars that are going toward this facility, and it provides a key role,” he said.

As part of the post-Kitsilano plan, Fisheries and Oceans is deploying an inshore rescue boat in Vancouver’s harbour. The boat will be manned from May to September by a steersman and six students.

“The inshore rescue boat program is a well-established program that has been operating across Canada for in excess of 30 years. It is our primary search and rescue asset in a number of communities,” said Ms. Thomas.

Mr. Moxey says the boat isn’t enough.

“Even if they were professional mariners, you can’t cover off the port of Vancouver for four months of the year in a rubber boat. You can’t fight fires with a rubber boat. It’s very hard to do med-evacs off of cruise ships,” he said.

Data on the Kitsilano base calls for 2010 and 2011 shows that while July, August and September are the three busiest months of the year, most calls occur in the winter season, when the inshore rescue boat would not be operational.

Mr. Stanek said that the Coast Guard regularly assesses the location of its resources and maritime activity to ensure that it can cover high-risk areas.

The Sea Island base, which currently has two hovercrafts, will be getting a new replacement hovercraft in 2013, said Ms. Thomas. 

“It’s faster, it’s more capable, it has greater range, said Ms. Thomas. 

Mr. Donnelly said that while the craft can be useful in some instances, a heavy wind can delay the hovercraft, and it is “impractical” for responding to small vessels’ emergency calls. 

“That’s where the station has the ability, through the different vessels that they have, to dispatch whatever the needed vessel is for the emergency,” he added. 

The marine coordinators state that the hovercrafts are often on calls that take it far away from the harbour. 

Mr. Moxey is also concerned about response times once Kitsilano is closed.

He recalled a time when he was on duty at Kitsilano when a tugboat was guiding a freighter about a mile away from the Coast Guard station when one of the cables connecting the vessels snapped.

“It cuts the seaman’s cheek and ear off his face. We jump in the cutter and we’re there in seven minutes,” he said.

“We got the seaman onboard, we got his ear and his cheek and put it in a sanitized container. We got him back to dock in a matter of five minutes. We also called for an ambulance to meet us at the dock, and he went to have surgery and he came out of it okay,” he said.

He explained that whereas Coast Guard mariners are on-call at the station and ready to jump into action, volunteers can be on standby and have to drive the marina before they are able to get onto the water. 

“We are very confident that they would be able to provide service within a reasonable reaction time that would be able to ensure the safety of the Vancouver harbour,” said Ms. Thomas. 

She added that the keeping Vancouver harbour safe isn’t up to any one vessel, base or volunteer team. 

“Search and rescue in  Vancouver harbour is not about Kitsilano, it’s a system of cascading assets, all of which can be deployed by the Canadian Coast Guard at any time, including RCMSAR, including the hovercraft, including the inshore rescue boat and including vessels of opportunity,” she said.

jbruno@hilltimes.com

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