The federal government’s plan to axe the St. John’s Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre is attracting plenty of criticism provincially, with most questioning whether the move creates cost-efficiencies at the expense of public safety.
The site provides search and rescue co-ordination, aids communication efforts and contributes local knowledge to support the work of higher-up centres. But under the federal government’s plan, that work will be shifted to the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centres in Halifax, and Trenton, Ont.
Various media reports stated the St. John’s centre employs 12 people.
Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman said he was surprised by the budget cut and intends to move the item to the top of his agenda for scheduled discussions with the federal government. He said he was already pencilled in for a meeting today with federal Fisheries and Oceans Minister Keith Ashfield.
“I have a number of items to discuss with Minister Ashfield, and this will certainly move to the forefront,” he said. “From my perspective, it’s a life safety issue. When you’re looking at the fiscal decisions you’re making, surely there’s other places where you can take people out, rather than removing people (where) such a decision could impact the safety of people.”
Jackman hopes an argument can be made to have the decision reversed.
Total cuts to the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) in Newfoundland and Labrador in Monday’s federal budget accounted for $56 million.
News of the site’s impending closure may be particularly troubling to those dependent on the fishery. Since 1999, there have been 42 deaths at sea off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador.
Jackman said with increased tanker traffic and more helicopters travelling to oil rigs, he would think now is a more opportune time to make investments in search and rescue services rather than cuts.
The matter of search and rescue response times has become an important topic in the province since the tragic events of March 12, 2009, when a Sikorsky S-92 flown by Cougar Helicopters plummeted into the Atlantic Ocean, claiming the lives of 17 of the 18 passengers on board.
“We’ve been working with the industry and the federal government — DFO — to implement some measures to improve safety, and to hear this decision, it really is surprising to me,” Jackman said.
That inspired a serious dialogue about offshore safety and response times.
The Wells Inquiry was established, overseen by retired judge Robert Wells. It eventually called for the creation of a stand-alone safety agency for the province’s oil industry.
St. John’s West New Democrat MP Jack Harris compelled the parliamentary defence committee to study search and rescue response times. Harris was among the first politicians to vocalize his disappointment over closure of the sub-centre.
“I think it’s a shameful decision,” Harris said Wednesday.
“I have a number of items to discuss with Minister Ashfield, and this will certainly move to the forefront." - Clyde Jackman
“The minister continuously refered to the marine rescue co-ordinating centre as a call centre, downplaying the significance and importance of its role,” he said.
The defence committee Harris sits on visited the sub-centre last winter on the southside of St. John’s, where its members heard first-hand about its important role in search and rescue operations, particularly with regards to local knowledge, he said.
“I’ve spent the last two years trying to improve search and rescue services in Newfoundland and Labrador and Canada by bringing response times down and getting them to international standards, which we’re lagging way behind in. And here we have a government that’s not only (avoiding) doing that, but also cutting back on services.”
Harry Blackmore, president of the Newfoundland and Labrador Search and Rescue Association, is among those parties who have worked with staff from the rescue sub-centre. He said with every report and study coming out over the last few years pointing to the need for more resources in search and rescue, it’s deplorable to shutdown the sub-centre in St. John’s.
He was among those who attended a symposium on search and rescue last week in St. John’s that was attended by officials from rescue centres in St. John’s and Halifax. Blackmore said there was nothing in the air pointing to what the public would learn this week.
Volunteer search and rescue organizations deal directly with the sub-centre in St. John’s whenever they become involved in rescue activities in salt water.
“We know everyone over there, and we know how it works. When you call they understand what we’re doing. We understand what they’re doing and their expertise we need to have. Now to have to call Halifax on this — it’s foolishness.”
Speaking at events in St. John’s on Tuesday, federal cabinet minister Peter Penashue said cuts to DFO were necessary to allow the federal government to prioritize investment in health and education. He did not make specific mention of the sub-centre in St. John’s.
In a news release Wednesday, Penashue said the safety and security of the province remains a top priority and that cuts to the sub-centre in St. John’s will not affect that.
“The existing search and rescue resources including helicopters, vessels, and officers will remain in Newfoundland where they are currently based to ensure rapid response.”
According to the Canadian Coast Guard website, the St. John’s sub-centre responds to an average of 5,000 calls each year for 2,900 people. Of those, it said 28 per cent are classified as distress incidents — the highest rate in Canada.