Despite a damning report from city staff that predicted lives could be lost in the waters off Vancouver, the Canadian Coast Guard says closing its Kitsilano base next spring will have "no negative impact" on the agency's ability to respond to emergencies.
The Coast Guard emailed the statement to the Courier Tuesday after city council heard a presentation from deputy city manager Sadhu Johnston who concluded "people's safety will be at risk" because of the closure.
Johnston's conclusion was based on statistics city staff gathered about the base's call load, response times, the number of other marine agencies available and meetings with Coast Guard representatives.
"Despite good conversations with the Coast Guard staff that are on the ground in Vancouver, there doesn't seem to be a plan to mitigate this gap that's being created," Johnston told council.
Terence Davis, the Coast Guard's regional director of communications, said in the email the agency hadn't reviewed council's report, although his comments indicate the government will not reconsider closing the Kitsilano base.
"The Coast Guard is confident that once changes to the search and rescue network in Vancouver have been completed, there will be no negative impact on our ability to respond quickly and effectively to distress incidents on the water," said Davis, noting Vancouver will continue to have more federally funded search and rescue assets than any other port in Canada.
The Kitsilano base, which has 12 staff and two search and rescue vessels, is slated to close next spring as part of an estimated $900,000 cut announced earlier this year by Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
When the base closes, the Coast Guard says it will rely on the Sea Island hovercraft stationed near the Vancouver International Airport and a new "inshore rescue boat" during the summer, and will continue to work with five Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue units.
The Coast Guard also referred to assistance from "emergency responders" and "any other vessel of opportunity." Both terms were raised at city hall, leaving councillors worried the job of search and rescue would be downloaded onto the Vancouver Police Department's marine unit and Vancouver Fire-Rescue, which has two fireboats. The VPD's marine unit responded to more than 1,500 calls last year and the fire department answered 24 fire calls on the water.
"Our police are not trained [in marine safety], they're not capable and it's not even their jurisdiction to pick up that slack," said Jang, who clarified through Johnston that a vessel of opportunity could be any boat on the water, including recreational boaters without any rescue skills.
Throughout his presentation, Johnston emphasized the role of search and rescue is a federal responsibility. Besides, he said, the city does not have the resources or budget to handle the additional workload.
At the direction of council, both police and fire departments will write a letter to the Prime Minister's Office outlining their roles when it comes to marine safety.
"The role of the fire service is to deal with fire emergencies, not medical emergencies," said Fire Chief John McKearney after the council meeting.
Johnston said the Kitsilano base responds to 75 to 100 "life-at-risk" calls per year, with approximately two-thirds of those occurring in the winter months. The Coast Guard's plan for a new inshore rescue boat calls for it to be activated in the summer.
Vision Vancouver Coun. Tim Stevenson said "we're about to lose Vancouverites lives here" because of the closure. Stevenson joined the rest of council in unanimously agreeing to send the city report to the Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office and request a meeting with Harper in an effort to reverse the government's decision.