The impending closure of the Kitsilano Canadian Coast Guard station could seriously hamper search and rescue efforts here on the North Shore, according to the volunteers who frequently oversee the operations.
North Shore Rescue said in a statement this week that the planned closure, announced recently by the federal government as part of a wider cost-saving effort, would make it harder for the team to travel to certain remote areas in an emergency and to conduct searches along the community’s shoreline.
“We see it as a minimal best practice to have (the station’s) boat on call 24 hours,” said NSR team leader Tim Jones. “Taking the Kits coast guard base out of that upsets the balance.”
Without the nearby federal marine service to offer help in shoreline searches and in transport, NSR will have to rely exclusively on the North Shore’s two volunteer marine search and rescue crews, and on the farther flung coast guard base near the Vancouver International Airport.
While Jones was careful to emphasize that both alternatives are excellent at what they do, he said there is a significant downside to the change. The team based at the airport would take longer to get on scene than its closer counterpart, and it might be unavailable at times when it’s engaged in other duties, he said. Similarly, volunteer teams can get held up by traffic and other delays, and can erode over time as they lose members to other demands.
“You can’t put all the pressure on a guy who may be an accountant (in regular life),” said Jones. “No matter how much effort you put into it, there’s always that variable that a person’s life will change and that it will take them out.”
A volunteer organization, no matter how good, is no substitute for a professional, full-time crew, he said.
Jones cited an incident from 2007 as an example. The North Shore Rescue had been called in late one night to help search for a group of men who had gone missing at the top of Indian Arm. The local volunteer boat was too small to take the nine members needed to perform the operation safely in the inclement weather, said Jones, so they called in the Canadian Coast Guard to transport the team up the inlet. The Sea Island base’s hovercraft tore a skirt en route, leaving only the Kits boat to do the job.
“(Without it) we wouldn’t have been able to get half our members up,” said Jones. “That would not have been enough people. . . . It would have put our lives in danger because we had no backup.”
On Monday, North Vancouver city council voted unanimously to send a letter to the federal government voicing similar concerns about the base closure.
But John Weston, MP for West Vancouver, said Ottawa’s decision was the right one.
“The Sea Island and Kitsilano rescue facilities are closer than any other pair of coast guard facilities in Canada,” he said, in an email to the North Shore News. “Our government believes that the proximity of the Sea Island rescue facility, the addition of an in-shore rescue vessel, and the addition of a new hovercraft rescue vessel will ensure the continued safety of British Columbians.”
Weston acknowledged that constituents have expressed concern about the plan, and said he had passed those concerns on to the minister.