The chiefs of the Vancouver Police Department and Vancouver Fire-Rescue have written letters to Prime Minister Stephen Harper requesting the federal government reconsider closing the Kitsilano Coast Guard base next spring.
Police Chief Jim Chu and Fire Chief John McKearney outlined in their letters dated Nov. 30 their concerns about increased response times to maritime emergencies and the risk to boaters and others who use the waters around Vancouver.
The letters were released to media Wednesday after city council earlier ordered the chiefs to send letters to Harper and request a meeting to discuss their concerns as they relate to the police and fire departments.
“Since the closure was announced, we have heard from residents throughout Metro Vancouver and we’ve had many discussions with frontline personnel from numerous stakeholder groups,” Chu wrote. “The overwhelming consensus is that the response times will be longer and that the level of service will be negatively impacted.”
McKearney said he has heard from many residents in the Lower Mainland whose lives were saved by the crews at the Kitsilano Coast Guard station. Many of them told McKearney that even a few extra minutes in the response of the Coast Guard would most likely have resulted in their deaths.
“As the municipal fire service provider, I am neither mandated nor equipped to take on the search and rescue role,” wrote McKearney, noting marine search and rescue is a federal responsibility. “As such, I remain very concerned about this impending gap in maritime emergency response and I strongly believe that if the Kitsilano base is closed, lives will be at risk.”
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 the five Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue units.
The Coast Guard has also referred to the assistance from “emergency responders” and “any other vessel of opportunity”, which worries both chiefs, who pointed out in their letters their departments existing workloads and mandates.
“The closure of the [Coast Guard] Kitsilano base has a very real potential to shift more [search and rescue] responsibility to the VPD marine unit which will, unavoidably, reduce our capacity to fulfill our primary mandate of enforcement, crime fighting and prevention,” Chu said.
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. Coast Guard crews at the Kitsilano base respond 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.
As of Wednesday, neither chief had received a response from Harper’s office.