VANCOUVER - A three-person inshore rescue team will be set up at the Canadian Navy auxiliary's base in Stanley Park once the Coast Guard station in Kitsilano is closed later this year, the federal government announced Wednesday.
Each team will comprise of a Coast Guard search and rescue professional and two trained students, and will operate around-the-clock in peak boating season from the May long weekend to Labour Day in September, Randy Kamp, the parliamentary secretary of Fisheries and Oceans, told reporters.
"These changes will improve response times and ensure that we are well-equipped to deal with emergencies on the water," Kamp told reporters at the small navy base near the entrance to the park.
The Kitsilano base is slated for closure this spring due to Coast Guard budget cuts.
B.C. overall will still have seven large Coast Guard vessels, six small vessels, two hovercraft, 13 search-and-rescue lifeboats and six helicopters ready for deployment, Kamp said.
Layoff letters have already gone out to at least two of the 13 Coast Guard members based in Kitsilano.
Jody Thomson, Deputy Commissioner of Operations for the Coast Guard, didn't echo Kamp's assertion that response times will improve but she said reaction times will remain within international standards.
Kitsilano provided excellent service, she said, and the closure will have an effect.
"It will be a change in service but it won't be an unreasonable level of service. Vancouver will still have more assets than any other major port in Canada and the response and reaction times will be within standards and mariners will be safe," Thomson told reporters.
The inshore rescue team does little to assuage critics, who say closing the busiest Coast Guard base in Canada will cost lives.
"Two students in a rubber dingy" is not adequate, said Dave Clark, regional vice-president of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees.
Protests have been ongoing since the Conservative government announced the closure almost a year ago, and just over a month ago Vancouver's police and fire chiefs wrote to Prime Minister Stephen Harper to express their concerns.
The Kitsilano Coast Guard base responded to 271 calls in 2011 — 36 of them marine distress calls and 40 humanitarian distress, according to the Coast Guard.
When the Kitsilano base closes, calls will be handled primarily by the Coast Guard base at Sea Island, in Richmond. That station will be getting a new hovercraft to allow faster response to localized calls.
In addition to the inshore rescue station, a volunteer contingent of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue (formerly the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary) has agreed to relocate operations to an area on Burrard Inlet.
The Vancouver Police have a full-time marine unit based in the city, and Police Chief Jim Chu is concerned they may be called upon to fill the void.
"The closure of the (Kitsilano base) has a very real potential to shift more (search and rescue) responsibility to the VPD marine unit which will, unavoidably, reduce our capacity to fulfil our primary mandate of enforcement, crime fighting and prevention," Chief Jim Chu wrote in his Nov. 30 letter to Harper.
The mitigation measures that include the inshore rescue team are "not adequate," he wrote.
The Opposition New Democrats say the decision to close the base is irresponsible.
"The Conservative government’s attempt to balance the budget at the expense of Canadians’ safety is incredibly short-sighted and reckless," NDP Leader Tom Mulcair said in a statement from Ottawa.
Mulcair said a rescue station to be staffed by students is not enough, and even with a volunteer search and rescue team that has agreed to relocate to be nearer the area, it's no substitute.