Coast guard saves lives every day: assistant commissioner

John Butler provides operational overview to Rotary Club of St. John’s

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on October 25, 2013
Canadian Coast Guard assistant commissioner John Butler says the good works of the coast guard often go unreported.  — Photo by Ashley Fitzpatrick/The Telegram

There was a full house at the latest luncheon meeting of the Rotary Club of St. John’s, to hear from John Butler, assistant commissioner with the Canadian Coast Guard.

Butler provided an overview of coast guard operations and, within that, highlighted the search and rescue operations successfully completed by coast guard staff and auxiliary members on a daily basis.

“On an average day, we save 15 lives, we assist 52 people in 27 search and rescue cases across this country,” he told the gathering.

Nationally, he said, search and rescue operations involving the coast guard are responsible for saving about 825 lives a year.

Canadian Coast Guard operations extend beyond search and rescue and, he said, including ships doing hydrographic work, ships charting the extent of the continental shelf in the Arctic, management of ferry and commercial ship movements, escorts of commercial ships and fisheries patrols.

Butler, who is from St. John’s and joined the coast guard in 1982 as a navigation systems engineer, noted the Canadian Coast Guard operates with three divisions nationally — Western, Central and Arctic, and Eastern.

The Eastern operational area has about 2,000 employees with as many as 1,400 of those being “seagoing folks,” he said.

The headquarters for the region remains in St. John’s, at the base on Southside Road, with emergency response run out of the Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) in Nova Scotia. The JRCC allows collective response from Canadian Forces coast guard with its volunteer auxiliary fleet, and any search and rescue ground crews in the area, he said.

In Newfoundland and Labrador, the coast guard responds to about 450 incidents a year.

“And I can tell you that number has gone down substantially over the last number of years,” Butler said, crediting better preparation and better training.

He cautioned against complacency by individuals and companies, particularly in the harsh environment of the North Atlantic.

“If you think you’ve got it licked, you better think again,” he said. “You have to be prepared. You have to know what you’re doing.”

Navigational assists are also a major piece of coast guard operations, including everything from ice navigation services aiding commercial ships to SmartBuoys providing information to help oil tanker captains determine when and how the ships can be safely moved in and out of port.

Through a morning briefing on Thursday, Butler noted, one received prior to his speech at the Hotel Newfoundland, he was told officers and crew in the coast guard’s Eastern region were watching more than 1,000 commercial boats, 300 fishing vessels, the offshore oil rigs and platforms and 13 cruise ships with 10,000 passengers.

Before closing, he made note of the federal government’s ongoing fleet-replacement program and the newest addition to the local coast guard fleet, CCGS G. Peddle S.C.

The new mid-shore patrol vessel is named after Canadian Coast Guard chief officer Gregory Paul Peddle of Spaniard’s Bay, who lost his life attempting to rescue a diver off Middle Cove in 1989, when the fast-rescue craft he was in overturned. Two of his co-workers, senior engineer Pierre Gallien and leading seaman Raymond C. Welcher, died in the same accident.