04/25/2012 11:01 EDT | Updated 06/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Flags fly at half-mast in Newfoundland to protest loss of maritime rescue centre

ST. JOHN'S, N.L. - A provincial flag at half-mast Wednesday over city hall in St. John's, N.L., was both a protest and a warning by those who say Ottawa's move to close a maritime rescue centre here will risk lives.

Supporters say the loss of the sub-centre, which co-ordinates North Atlantic rescue response in often treacherous conditions, strips away crucial local knowledge in situations where every second counts.

"It was done in recognition of the potential for future lives lost," said St. John's city Coun. Danny Breen. "It's symbolic in that the Newfoundland flag is lowered but you'll notice the Canadian flag is still flying high."

Breen says the region needs faster and better search and rescue response, not a cut in local service.

His brother, Peter, died when an offshore helicopter crashed into the sea about 55 kilometres east of St. John's on March 12, 2009, killing 17 of 18 people aboard. The disaster put intense scrutiny on search and rescue response times, and was another chapter in a sad history of death in a place where many people earn their living at sea.

A spokesman for Fisheries and Oceans confirmed that calls would revert to the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Halifax as of Wednesday.

The federal government says the move will save money without lowering standards.

"Maritime safety services are a top priority for our government," said an emailed statement from Cory Hann, spokesman for Intergovernmental Affairs Minister Peter Penashue, the regional minister for Newfoundland and Labrador.

"Under absolutely no circumstances would we implement any policy that would jeopardize this. On-water response to marine search and rescue will not change. Measures have been built into the process to make sure that the level of service will remain the same or better than currently."

Twelve workers in St. John's will take retirement or be shifted to other Canadian Coast Guard jobs before the centre closes by June.

One of them is maritime search and rescue co-ordinator Merv Wiseman, who has worked at the centre since 1978 and has been a vocal critic of its closure. His forced retirement as of May 8 comes with compensation of more than $50,000, he said to underscore that his motivations are about safety, not self-preservation.

"We know as professionals that people will die and we've expressed that view right on up the line, right up to the ministers themselves — to no avail," Wiseman said from Ottawa where he was making a last-ditch effort to rally federal support.

He said the 24-hour centre handles 500 search and rescue incidents a year in an area that spans more than 900,000 square kilometres of ocean and almost 30,000 kilometres of coastline. One-third of those cases are distress calls, he said.

On average, 600 lives are saved and 18 lost in the region each year, says the Canadian Coast Guard website.

Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield in the House of Commons repeatedly downplayed the St. John's rescue office as a "call centre" as he justified the decision to nix it.

A similar centre in Quebec City was also to close, but will stay open for now while bilingual services are expanded in Halifax and Trenton, Ont., Hann said.

Municipalities Newfoundland and Labrador, representing cities and towns across the province, also called for flags to be lowered. Randy Simms, mayor of the City of Mount Pearl adjacent to St. John's, hosts a local radio call-in show on which he urged Premier Kathy Dunderdale to fly flags at half-mast over the house of assembly.

She declined Wednesday in the legislature.

"Mr. Speaker, I have no intention of lowering flags," she said. "What I do have an intention of doing is to ... press our case with the federal government and to make real arguments that have a chance of having an impact, instead of a show for public support."

Breen said Dunderdale's efforts have so far fallen on deaf ears.

"I think the provincial government is clearly on the record as being against this decision, but I think it does need to be more forceful in its dealings with Ottawa," he said.

Breen predicts there will be other protest gestures in the province. "This issue, although it may be over, it certainly won't be forgotten."