05/25/2012 04:36 EDT | Updated 07/25/2012 05:12 EDT

Coast Guard acknowledges only DND consulted about B.C. station closures

VANCOUVER - The Canadian Coast Guard says closing the Kitsilano search-and-rescue station will not put lives at risk because a good enough mix of resources is available to respond to maritime emergencies around Vancouver.

But coast guard official Jody Thomas acknowledges the agency didn't speak to anyone involved with those other resources, and the only consultation it conducted before announcing the closure last week was with the Department of National Defence.

"As search and rescue experts and as the partner accountable for search and rescue, we consulted with the Department of National Defence," said Thomas, deputy commissioner of operations for the coast guard.

"We are now making contact with provincial, municipal and local leaders to discuss how we're going to implement this in the most efficient manner."

When the closure announcement was made, the federal minister in charge of B.C., James Moore, told radio station CKNW that broad consultations had been conducted.

However, Vancouver's mayor said he wasn't consulted about a decision that could put lives at risk.

The Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary, a voluntary organization, said it was surprised by the announcement.

Randy Strandt, an auxiliary spokesman, said he won't know what the closure means for his organization until he has meetings with coast guard management.

"We don't expect, definitely don't expect, our members to take over the level of activity of a paid station," he said.

While auxiliary members are highly trained, professional and proficient and take their jobs seriously, there are limits to the calls they can take and hours they can work because they are volunteers, he said.

"We'll continue in service and help out where we can," he said. "I definitely couldn't say were going to replace them. Never would we say that."

But Thomas said her agency is confident of the auxiliary's excellent track record and its five stations around Vancouver harbour will ensure safety.

"Their reaction time is 19 minutes, within 30 minutes 90 per cent of the time. We're very confident, after we discuss what our needs are and what they can provide, that we will be able to ensure the level of services."

However, Dave Clark, regional vice-president of the union representing the coast guard workers, said that reaction time is 30 minutes to the auxiliary boat, not to the scene of a problem.

"They're backup. They're not actually supposed to be used as supplementary," Clark said in an interview.

The union maintains the closure of the base means a 30-minute, potentially deadly, delay in responding to emergencies from the next-closest coast station, located in Richmond, B.C., at Vancouver International Airport.

Thomas also said the "mix of resources" available for rescue missions in Vancouver harbour includes other ships that are in the area of a mishap. She noted that under life-at-sea laws, any vessel in the area is required to respond to an emergency.

Other vessels that could potentially help out would be Vancouver police boats, but Clark noted the only time the police would have jurisdiction to respond to an emergency is if someone falls or jumps into the water from a bridge or the beach.

"If someone falls from a boat, it's a federal responsibility and coast guard knows this."

Besides, he said, the Vancouver police boat is only on duty for 12 hours a day, not around the clock the way the Kitsilano station is.

Clark's union, the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, has launched a campaign, which includes a Facebook page, to save the station.

The union maintains the Kitsilano station responded to 285 calls last year, though Thomas disputed that.

Thomas said there has been a "significant amount of misinformation" about the Kitsilano station. She said on average, it responds to about 200 calls per year, noting 70 per cent of them are not distress calls.