In Defence of the MRSC-2

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Sharp feedback from a radio operator

July 4, 2011 - Over the weekend, I received a comment on my “In Defence of the MRSC” blog entry, from David Guinchard, a Marine Communications and Traffic Services Officer with one of our Coast Guard Radio Stations.

Guinchard felt slighted by Paul Clay’s reference to radio operators in that piece. Here is the full text of his comment:

FYI, Coast Guard Radio Stations always have, and will continue to receive maritime distress calls. Your article seems to indicate (according to Mr. Clay) that this will become a "new" role after the closure of the MRSC. I'm not sure how good you know history, but the "Mayday" call sent by the Titanic was actually received by one of these Radio Stations, long before there was ever a concept of an MRSC.

FYI, Coast Guard Radio Stations always have been, and will continue to be the primary communications centers for any maritime distress situations. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of distress calls are received by these stations, and initial responses are instigated by these stations by broadcasting distress information over the radio, which often leads to alerting numerous vessels in the area to divert their course and proceed to provide assistance to any vessel in trouble, before MRSC has even been notified of the situation. A recent example of this would be the incident involving the F/V Cape Dawn in which that vessel's distress call was received by St. Anthony Coast Guard Radio, which then lead to an immediate "Mayday Relay" broadcast from that station, which lead the M/V Astron to immediately change course and proceed to where they eventually rescued 4 persons. That was because of the work being done by the Coast Guard Radio Station, prior to MRSC being notified.

Mr. Paul Clay seems to suggest that Coast Guard Radio Stations are not equipped with trained personnel to handle emergency situations. As a Marine Communications and Traffic Services Officer at one of those very stations, I can tell you with 100% confidence that we are absolutely able to handle emergencies, and having worked and responded to many myself, I take great offense at Mr. Paul's assessment of what Coast Guard Radio Stations can do, and the critical service we provide to ensure the safety of life at sea.

I would suggest in the future that you get your information from a real expert, working in front line communications, rather than so called "experts" as Mr. Clay claims to be.

Thanks again for blurring the lines of reality, and continuing to spread false information.

Of course, I wrote the piece neither to blur reality nor spread misinformation, but to bring clarity to an important issue already clouded in emotion and misinformation. So I replied immediately to Mr. Guinchard with this note:

I do appreciate your letter. You may dispute the “expert” label for Mr. Clay, and fair enough, but he is certainly more knowledgeable that the average citizen. I was becoming frustrated by what I was hearing and reading in media, so I set out to ask some questions myself. By responding, you are adding another important piece to this puzzle.

I realize now that I should have probed Paul more on the matter of radio stations and, in fact, did send him a supplementary question about them, via email, before posting the item. But he didn’t get back in time.

I realize that the radio stations do play an important operational role. My understanding was that they were primarily relay stations, passing information on to JRCC and MRSC. You are saying, then, that they have a critical operational role and actually manage the majority of incidents on their own? If so, this is important information. In what ways, and why, do you interface with MRSC and JRCC?

When you send out distress calls, I assume these are received by both the MRSC and JRCC?

What is your view, then, of the MRSC? Do we actually need it? Will losing it diminish our ability to respond as strongly as we do now? Do you otherwise agree or disagree with what Clay has to say, about losing this piece of infrastructure?

Thanks, David. It was not my intention to blur reality or spread false information. I want to get at the truth, and your note helps me do that.

Geoff

Here is the response I received from Guinchard, later that day:

Thank you for replying to my comments.

I have also been very frustrated about the mis-information that continues to circulate regarding how distress situations are handled, not just in Newfoundland, but throughout Canada. More often than not, various media outlets will report an incident as a distress call being received by MRSC. As I said previously, many of these incidents are radioed into Coast Guard Radio Stations by the vessels in distress. The Radio Stations will then solicit additional information from the vessel when possible (depending on the situation) and re-broadcast this information over the radio through what is called a "Mayday Relay". This broadcast alerts other mariners in the area of the situation, and ideally, several vessels will respond and proceed to provide assistance. Any such responses are then radioed in to the Coast Guard Radio Station.

Coast Guard Radio Stations will as soon as possible, notify MRSC of the situation, passing along all the information regarding the vessel in distress and any vessels responding at the time, and these Radio Stations then continue to monitor the situation through radio communications, and forwarding all information to the MRSC.

This is where the critical work of the MRSC is done. Once they receive the information, they begin working expertly to coordinate the search and rescue efforts, and look for additional search and rescue resources, whether they are Coast Guard vessels, Coast Guard Auxiliary vessels, or search and rescue aircraft, and task them to proceed and support the search and rescue efforts. And as a side note, not all distress communications are received by radio, as there are also numerous cases (through modern technology, ie, EPIRB equipment) where distress information is received directly by MRSC and they proceed accordingly.

It is the expertise and extensive knowledge of the MRSC staff which enables a quick and effective response to any marine incidents. Their role is very critical, as the wealth of local knowledge, not just geography, but with the mariners themselves proves invaluable to search and rescue efforts.

Regards,

David Guinchard

Since he received a bit of a drubbing in Guinchard’s initial comment, I sent Paul Clay a note, asking if he’d like to respond. Clay’s reply was diplomatic and to the point:

Mr. Guinchard is correct in what he says. But let's not lose the big picture. What I was referring to was broader command and control issues involving major installations such as platforms and others who may call directly into the MRSC / JRCC. Radio stations play a critical role in emergencies for many ships, however, my point was that they are not Marine Rescue Centres and that the Feds should not allude to them as being so. That does not detract from the vital role that radio stations play, nor their professionalism, because they are critical, and in fact do receive many radio distress calls and always react well. To reiterate, my concerns are the loss of strategic input and command and control, etc., that we would lose in St. John's, that complements the work of others, radio stations included. With that in mind I stand by my initial comments and sincerely hope the gentleman from Coast Guard will see that we are trying to save the MRSC, not minimize the important role that he and the Coast Guard Radio Stations play.

Paul

I have just one closing comment. In his reply to me, Mr. Guinchard does say the role of MRSC is “very critical” to search and rescue efforts. I think it can safely be said that he supports the existence of the facility. However, his initial note was more ambiguous, and I’m afraid might have given ammunition to the bureaucrats who are intent on closing the MRSC.

I will have more on the MRSC issue in the days ahead. 

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  • Paul Clay
    July 04, 2011 - 14:07

    Mr. Guinchard, and anyone else who read my original comments, should be 100% clear that the article did not explore the merits of what Coast Guard Radio Stations do or do not do, but was a means to express the regional and strategic importance of the MRSC in St. John’s. I, and many readers, know very well that Coast Guard Radio Stations always have, and will continue to, receive many maritime distress calls and I agree with Mr. Guinchard on that point. I believe my general point was that the Radio Stations do not perform the broader tasks and functions of the MRSC. That is not a criticism of Mr. Guinchard or the Coast Guard Radio Stations, and so I hope Mr. Guinchard did not take that personally. What is desperately needed now is a united front in order to save the MRSC. With that in mind, I along with Coast Guard and the General Public will continue this fight to the end, not because it is simply makes noise, but because it is the right thing to do. As for being an expert, they are the words of someone else. I would, however, invite Mr. Guinchard to contact me at Seacom in St. John’s should he wish to discuss my experiences and points of view. To that end I congratulate Mr. Guinchard on the valuable work he and the Radio Stations do, but please join and fight and help us to collectively save the MRSC.