BRITISH COLUMBIA

Vancouver's mayor, fire chief say lives at risk with closure of coast guard base

02/20/2013 04:17 EST | Updated 04/22/2013 05:12 EDT
VANCOUVER - Provincial and local politicians vowed to keep fighting against the closure of Canada's busiest coast guard station the day after the federal government turned off the lights and locked the doors.

The Department of Fisheries and Oceans announced early Tuesday afternoon that it had closed the Canadian Coast Guard Station in Vancouver, taking labour leaders, politicians and emergency personnel by surprise,

The news was delivered nine months after the federal government announced the station would be closed because of budget cuts sometime in the spring of 2013.

Premier Christy Clark said Wednesday her government wasn't given any advance warning about the closure, and she will do everything in her power to reopen the facility that responded to about 350 emergency calls a year open.

"If they think the fight's over, it ain't over," said Clark, adding the decision was wrong and a federal budget mistake that needed correction.

In fact, B.C.'s Attorney General Shirley Bond has already written a strongly worded letter to her federal counterpart, said Clark who added that she planned to contact officials in Ottawa to express her displeasure.

Clark said the station played an important role in responding to any potential problems experienced by BC Ferries, which she called the "largest ferry system in the world," and answered emergency calls in the country's busiest port and one of its busiest marine playgrounds.

"There are some things you can't stop doing, and this is one of them," said Clark.

With the station closed, the closest coast guard base to Vancouver's waterfront is now located at Sea Island, in Richmond, B.C., which is 31 kilometres, or about 35 minutes away by boat.

A volunteer contingent of the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue has agreed to relocate operations to an area on Vancouver's Burrard Inlet.

The federal government also announced in January that a three-person inshore rescue team would operate on the waterfront, around-the-clock and in peak boating season from the May long weekend to Labour Day in September.

The decision to close the facility came after two recent search-and-rescue exercises, the latest of which happened Monday, and was made by Gary Sidock, acting assistant commissioner of the Canadian Coast Guard's western region.

A coast guard hovercraft, as well as vessels from Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, Port Metro Vancouver, and police and fire departments participated in the exercise.

Sidock said the timing was not politically motivated and was made after he was confident the new search-and-rescue plan for Vancouver's harbour was operational.

But Vancouver Fire Chief John McKearney said he participated in Monday's exercise, and there was no mention of any base closure.

"To suggest to our citizens that these exercises or any real emergency no longer requires a rapid response by the coast guard is simply incorrect," he said.

McKearney also criticized the government's seasonal summer services, saying they are no comparison "to the professionally trained and equipped officers of the coast guard."

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson said he was also shocked and disappointed the station was abruptly closed.

He said he believes the closure will put lives at risk and the city will have to figure out some kind of backup plan if something goes wrong on the waterfront.

The lack of consultation with B.C. politicians over the issue isn't a new issue.

In May 2012, coast guard spokeswoman Jody Thomas acknowledged the agency only consulted with the Department of National Defence — and not with any of the other volunteer or city agencies — before announcing the closure of the station.

According to figures previously released by the coast guard, the Vancouver station responded to 271 calls in 2011, 36 of them marine distress calls and 40 humanitarian distress, and its annual cost was $900,000.

(The Canadian Press, CKNW)