Mayor Gregor Robertson and members of the Vancouver Police Board are concerned that a closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base could mean more work for the Vancouver Police Department’s marine unit.
The base is scheduled to close next spring as part of Fisheries and Oceans Canada’s decision to cut costs and lay off Coast Guard workers.
Robertson, who doubles as chairperson of the police board, said he was worried about federal responsibilities being downloaded on the VPD’s marine unit and subsequent budget pressures.
“We’re in a very sensitive time now with the Coast Guard base slated for closure,” the mayor told board members gathered Sept. 12 at the VPD’s Cambie Street precinct. “There’s a ton of concern about this in the community.”
Robertson raised the issue after the board approved a report asking members to sign off on the addition of a 9.5-metre rigid hull inflatable boat to the VPD’s marine unit.
The $365,000 cost of the vessel, which has a service life of eight to 10 years, will be covered by the Vancouver Police Foundation. But city council would have to pick up an estimated $8,280 in annual operating expenses and the cost of the vessel’s eventual replacement.
Board member Wade Grant asked VPD Supt. Andy Hobbs, who presented the report, whether the closure of the Kits base would translate to the marine unit having to answer more calls.
“It’s difficult to say for sure because we don’t have a crystal ball,” replied Hobbs, noting the marine unit responded to more than 1,500 calls last year.
The Coast Guard attended 271 calls in 2011, with the majority considered “non-distress,” which included responding to disabled vessels, according to information posted on the Fisheries and Oceans Canada website.
An additional 36 were considered “maritime distress” calls and another 40 classified as “humanitarian calls,” according to the website.
Hobbs didn’t immediately know how many VPD calls overlapped with the Coast Guard but his report showed 253 of the police calls were classified as a top priority.
Typical “priority one” calls include suicidal people on bridges, violent crimes in progress and emergencies involving boats sinking or drifting to shore or into the path of other vessels.
The VPD marine unit has two boats, including a large patrol vessel named the R.G. McBeath that is “incapable of providing all aspects of performance necessary to fulfill the marine unit’s complete mandate,” according to Hobbs’ report.
The other is a 5.9-metre inflatable the VPD says restricts the number of occupants and tactical operations and is unable to fit a spinal board.
In 2007, the VPD and city completed an operational review of the entire department specific to marine duties. The study determined the marine unit, which has 14 constables and two sergeants, was understaffed and had significantly fewer vessels than other comparable port cities. The report also identified “significant gaps in service capabilities and equipment suitability.”
Hobbs said talks continue with a working group that includes city officials and various authorities examining the effect the Coast Guard base closure could have on the city.
Board member Mary Collins urged Hobbs to return to the police board at a future meeting with an update on any conclusions reached by the working group.
Meanwhile, city council is expected to get an update at the Sept. 18 council meeting from senior staff on the potential effect of the base closure.
“I remain hopeful the feds see the wisdom in keeping the Coast Guard base open,” the mayor added.
In June, Minister of Fisheries and Oceans Keith Ashfield said in a speech in Vancouver the government will add a new “inshore rescue boat” during the summer season and continue to work with five Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue units. The Sea Island hovercraft will also be available to respond to incidents in Vancouver, he said.
“First and foremost, the decision to close the Kitsilano base will not endanger mariners in Vancouver harbour,” he said. “Neither the Coast Guard nor I would make a decision that would put lives at risk. I am confident that the existing network of resources in Vancouver will be able to more than adequately handle the nature and volume of calls specific to the area.”