June 30, 2011 - I’ve been following the controversy about the closure of the Marine Rescue Sub Centre (MRSC).
The Harper Government is closing the centre ostensibly to save itself $50 million per year. It says the “contact centre” can easily be absorbed in Halifax and Trenton.
Critics of the decision – pretty much everyone in the province – have said a bunch of things, mixing myth with fact, in voicing their opposition to the cut.
Myth: Newfoundland and Labrador has the lowest number of federal employees, per capita, than any province in Canada. This is not true. In fact, we have the fourth highest number of federal employees, behind PEI, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Yes, we have more per capita than Ontario and Quebec! If civil servants were evenly distributed across the country, we would lose 20 percent of our current federal employees.
Fact: The people staffing the MRSC know the dialect and geography of this place.
Yes, that’s a fact. But this troubled me. It just didn’t seem like enough of a reason, all things considered, to justify the centre’s existence. Some people might find that line about dialect offensive, if uttered by a mainlander.
I sensed there was more to this than meets the eye. I have visited the MRSC, while taking a two-day command and control course, and watched the people there in action. There was no emergency at the time, but there was a vessel in difficulty – not quite a mayday – that the Coast Guard dude was monitoring closely. No matter how you slice it, this is more than a “contact centre.”
To my ears, the reasons to keep the centre here have not been well articulated, despite the thousands of voices raised in protest. So I ran this question past Paul Clay, President of Seacom, a specialist in emergency response and command and control training.
“The MRSC is a vital and essential part of the emergency response infrastructure in Newfoundland and Labrador,” Clay said. “Losing it not only means loss of local knowledge, but also a loss of vital command and control infrastructure and authority, strategic and operational planning input, training expertise and a voice for all of us, with regards to responding to marine emergencies here in the province.”
There is one key difference between the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Halifax and the MRSC in St. John’s, Clay explained. In Halifax, the JRCC is staffed by Coast Guard and Air Force personnel, and can thus mobilize marine and air support in rescue operations. In St. John’s, the MRSC is staffed by Coast Guard only, so they direct vessels at sea only. However, they can link in at any time with JRCC if air support is needed. Otherwise, both operations are equal – and equally important.
“Some people claim that it can all be done in Halifax and, if you only apply that argument on paper, it may seem correct. And you could even say that the MRSC is duplicating what is being done in Halifax. However, I think there is a much broader issue here. We need to ask, what does MRSC do locally and what will happen if it’s gone?”
Clay offered several points in defence of the MRSC.
“One of the biggest things that will happen if the MRSC goes is, when an emergency distress call comes in, it may well go to a Coast Guard radio station, and there are lots of those dotted around Newfoundland and Labrador,” Clay said. “This is the federal government’s theory, that the radio stations can take the calls, relay them and help coordinate things with the JRCC. But the Coast Guard radio stations are just that – radio stations – they are not emergency response centres. They’re not equipped and don’t have the trained personnel to do that.”
For starters, then, Clay fears that communications infrastructure will suffer. “I anticipate there may be difficulty when a ship or vessel offshore is trying to communicate that they have an emergency. They will have substantial difficulty in trying to deal with emergencies offshore from a communications point of view, because it is not what they do. Some have said that having two centres – JRCC and MRSC – answer the line is confusing, but it’s not. It is actually a blessing because there have been times when, for whatever reason, one line drops out that the other can still respond.”
Clay also dreads the loss of command and control authority.
“The MRSC belongs to Newfoundland and Labrador,” he said. “That’s ours. The personnel there control their own responses and represent the best interests of this province, and they’ve done a damn fine job of that. They are the first agency, the lead agency, to respond to marine emergencies on behalf of Newfoundland and Labrador. This is their zone. This is their area. In other words, they are calling the shots. Of course, they are using their local knowledge and all the other tools at their response centre to help them manage the emergency, and they are linking in with the JRCC and getting in whatever helicopter support they may need.”
Connected to this is the loss of strategic and operational planning input, Clay said.
“If the MRSC is closed, that responsibility is transferred to Halifax, which means we would have somebody in Halifax dictating what’s going to happen with response operations in this province. We would lose the planning input that MRSC has locally. There would be nobody here speaking on our behalf about what exactly we need here in Newfoundland and Labrador. Who is going to speak on behalf of us, strategically and operationally, about what the needs are for Newfoundland and Labrador? And how do we maintain those needs, those vessels, and their capabilities, at their locations. All those decisions will be made in Halifax.”
Clay said we are losing not just a critical piece of infrastructure, but a voice at the table to represent and defend our interests.
“And you know exactly what’s going to happen over time – our interests won’t be represented. Who’s going to represent us when someone says we’re going to take two ships out of St. John’s and put them in Halifax? Who’s going to push back, and say you can’t do that? No one, because the people making the decisions are not here. Not a single person from this province would have any input on what happens to our emergency services and assets.”
I thought he was being direct and opinionated up to this point, but Clay was just getting warmed up.
“And what’s really, really pissing me off is the lack of voice from the provincial government and the C-NLOPB. Where are they? What is their opinion on this? The C-NLOPB is the organization that regulates our industry. As the provincial / federal agency responsible for recommending that industry have better response times and services in the province, what is their position on this when the federal government is actually cutting services?”
Then Clay trained his sights on Premier Dunderdale and her government.
“As for the premier, her very first comment on the TV was, well, there’s not much we can do. I felt like throwing up, it really affected me like that. I wouldn’t suggest government is easy for anybody, especially a premier, but this is a big deal. Newfoundland had to fight for this rescue centre. We lost 84 lives to get the MRSC, after the Ocean Ranger, with the aim being that we could manage our own responses. That’s what we have and it has worked quite well. I mean, this is a province of Canada. And we have no say regarding what happens in our own province? It’s a federal decision, I understand that, but there has to be a stronger voice from the province and the premier needs to get out and do something about it.”
Clay agreed with me, that discussion around this issue is unfocused and confused.
“I don’t think a lot of people really understand the complexities, and it’s so easy to get emotionally involved in it. You hear on the news all the time that they have local knowledge (at MRSC), and that’s the only real argument that you hear being put forward. And that’s true. But I would suggest that is probably 10 percent of the whole argument. And that’s not enough… We have to be careful with that argument. It has some merit, but if that’s all we use, it’s going to get shot down. We have to look at the bigger picture. There will be nobody here locally having any input into how an emergency is managed and coordinated. More importantly, there will be nobody here locally with any strategic input on long term planning, on how we’re going to respond to marine emergencies in Newfoundland and Labrador. That’s all going to be done elsewhere. And that’s what concerns me more than anything else. I’m not worried that there will be a response. There will be. I’m worried about whether there will be a good response because we have no input into the process. That’s what worries me.”
Clay said the protest on the harbourfront was a good show of opposition, and he did congratulate the premier for talking tougher on the issue, more recently. The question now, he said, is how to persuade the federal government to reverse its decision.
“It’s how to combat it. Because if the province won’t take it to the federal government, what do you do? Premier Dunderdale did say, and credit to her I suppose, that we have to speak up loudly, Muskrat Falls is irrelevant and we have to fight for our MRSC. But those are words. What we need now are actions. If I was her, I’d be on a plane and up to Ottawa, banging on Harper’s door until he opened it. She is the premier of the province, and she doesn’t have access to the PM? I have no words. I’m speechless.”
I was about to post this item this morning, when our federal minister, Peter Penashue, called VOCM Open Line to defend the MRSC closure. Penashue tried to make a point using the example of a recent rescue mission near Makkovik, Labrador, pointing out that the RCMP called Halifax directly when they had a sinking vessel. He didn’t point out the distinct marine rescue role of the MRSC, while implying that, because the RCMP didn't call St. John’s, the MRSC is redundant. But the RCMP called Halifax because JRCC controls helicopters. And air support is critical in Labrador, which is more isolated with much less vessel traffic.
Penashue failed to mention that the MRSC in St. John’s is staffed by Coast Guard only, so they direct vessels at sea. They control the marine rescue assets and infrastructure around the coast of Newfoundland, where ships are incredibly important, as well as Labrador. However, MRSC can link in at any time with JRCC if air support is needed.
Penashue intentionally ignored the critical marine role at MRSC, as articulated here by Paul Clay. His comments were an insult to the people of Newfoundland. He is clearly the minister for Labrador, not the island portion of the province.
Now, if the matter wasn’t so serious, I would find sweet irony in Labrador smacking down Newfoundland. That’s been a long time coming. But shafting us on something as critical as survival at sea is no laughing matter.
So now we know who represents us federally. Peter Penashue does not. Those who oppose the MRSC closure will have to work around him.