Sunday, July 22, 2012

Don't close Kitsilano Coast Guard Base

I was a member of the CG for 13 years and among other jobs served as a Rescue specialist and Rescue diver at the hovercraft. In fact my CG career started out at the Kitsilano base. I am quite aware of the role the base plays in the lower mainland, the capabilities and limitations of the Hovercraft base, Coast Guard auxiliaries, other responders and the internal politics of the CG.

History of the base

Kitsilano was built in WWII and operated by the RCAF as a Crashboat station, with vessels based on the Canadian powerboat design (pictured above) and 40' wooden launches. Latere they were equipped with 40's steel Crashboats, similar to the Blackduck pictured below.

In 1962 the base, boats (Mallard and Moorhen) and crews were turned over to the newly formed CG. This station played a vital role on this coast providing Search and Rescue (SAR) coverage as far away as Northern Vancouver Island. The base also served as a HQ for the SAR branch and public office for the Office of boating Safety (OBS).

As the rest of the CG grew, the station SAR area was reset as Vancouver harbour, Indian Arm, Port Moody, English bay, Howe sound, lower half of Sunshine coast and halfway across the strait. This area is heavily used by the boating public, many with very few skills or knowledge of the hazards year round, making the base one of the busiest in Canada. By this time the station was equipped with 3 boats and one inflatable. the main vessel was the CCGC Osprey.

SAR issues Impacts and Consequences

So far the CG has stated that closing the base will not effect response time. I will give them the benefit of the doubt I try really hard to believe they are being misinformed. Their (evolving) argument has been that a new hovercraft is coming, except they neglected to mention it’s replacing an older existing machine (CCGC Penac) so the ability of the hovercraft base does not change at all. In fact my sources tell me that at present there are no plans to increase crewing to offset the loss of Kit’s base. This leaves the entire area (approx 77km north to south and 66km from Indian Arm to mid strait) dependent on 1 full time vessel. The Hovercrafts main SAR task is to cover the airport, it can’t do that while up Indian Arm. The loss of Kits means also that the hovercraft will have less time to do it’s other core work which includes navigation aid repair or carry out the training the dive team requires. Maintenance on the craft will go up, leading to more downtime and more costs. Plus they will have to call in crews on overtime if the craft gets called to the far edge of a SAR zone on a long call, all of which erodes the savings claimed by the CG.

The station also operates as a direct contact point for boaters to speak to CG personal and receive advice and even minor help, this is one of those intangibles that is difficult to measure directly, but literally Kitsilano is only place in the lower mainland where boaters can easily speak and interact with CG members.

Over the years the crew at the base have been instrumental is saving many lives of bridge jumpers who were witnessed by crew members jumping into the water and the crews were able to respond and save the person life before any 911 call or Rescue Coordination Centre tasking could be issued. The station crews have also been an important assets to other government departments supporting them when those department needed vessel support or inspections in the area.

The other resource the CG mentioned is the Coast Guard Auxiliary or as now called on the west coast the Royal Canadian Marine-SAR RRCM-SAR, this is a volunteer organization which I have worked with many times and I respect many of it’s members greatly, however I also know their limitations. Most have jobs and young families, it’s one thing to be torn away from those you love to save a life, but much of the SAR life is more mundane, 12 hr searches for someone who may or may not have jumped off a ferry, going out at night to find an idiot who brought more beer than gas, or scrambling to a call only to be stood down after 40 minutes. The RCM-SAR boats will be called out far more often and that will place more wear and tear on their crews and boats. The boats can be fixed but if you begin to burn out your core volunteers, then trouble will follow, as sadly happened just recently with the loss of 2 volunteers.I also understand that the vessel used by them was missing key parts contributing to their deaths and serious injury of one of the other volunteers trying to rescue them.

To put this incident in perspective, the RCM-SAR has lost as many volunteers now as the fulltime CG has on this coast since the inception of the CG despite the RCM-SAR have much less hours at sea or exposure to associated risks.

Another aspect is that there is little support for volunteers dealing with tragedy and shock of seeing dismembered bodies. As a fulltime rescuer it was hard enough and I did my best to shield the volunteers from that side ensuring it was CG crew that retrieved the bodies, not the volunteers. What mechanism have been put into place to support the volunteers with the inevitable critical stress that accompany this type of work? By making them the primary responders and not supporting them, the government may be opening themselves up to future lawsuits.

It seems that certain elements within RCM-SAR have “empire-building” designs at the expense of full time SAR crews and the public. The tension is already beginning to be felt at the boat level and mistrust is forming. Very soon CG crews will be loath to teach skills to the volunteers under fears that they too may lose their job. There has been talk of placing a RCM-SAR boat in Vancouver. With uncertain economic times and the high cost of living here, the RCM-SAR may find it difficult to find and hold onto fit, healthy and experienced people.

The CG has also pointed out there are other “response” vessels in the area. These would be the police boat, Vancouver Lifeguards, Port Metro and fireboats. Each of these vessels has responsibility to their own areas and task, while they will respond if manned and free, the CG can not guarantee their availability or their future. Vancouver and other municipalities are all struggling with climbing deficits and future of the fireboats, marine squad and lifeguard boat are in question. None of these vessels are available for prolonged searches or incidents. Not to mention they would not be responding to calls in Howe Sound or Sunshine Coast.

Cost saving at what expense?

The “smoke signals” and the painfully clumsy attempts to look like they care about feedback from the marine users make it seems the CG is determined to off-load SAR onto volunteers regardless of the costs. In fact this is not the first time CG management has tried to shut the Kit’s base down and also tried to shut the hovercraft base down. Imagine wanting to shut the 2 busiest bases in Canada? It makes it clear that SAR is not a priority with the regional management.

In fact within the CG has been a long simmering feud between the SAR side (small ships) and navigation aid maintenance side (big ships). The management, much which came from the big ships, will sacrifice everything and anything to save the large ships and to them SAR is messy and unpredictable, whereas navigation aid work is very easy to plan and work around.

Flawed data driving this decision

I have spent many years working on these SAR resources and others although this area. I know through experience that Kitslano plays a key role in the SAR response. The base is the victim of it’s own success. The SAR reports used to justify this decision don’t even begin to tell the story. Many of the “mundane” calls are such because the base crew was able to stop the chain of events that lead to more serious incidents. During the summer there will be multiple calls at the same time in different areas, it was not uncommon for all the SAR resources in the area to be working different calls.

I also am aware that the CCG has been trying to justify their position using statistics. Most of these are gathered using the “Incident reports” I have read many of these reports on incidents that I have been involved in and they don’t capture all of the data. It’s almost impossible to measure something that did not happen, many “minor” incidents I was involved in would have been fatal had we not intervened early on. Relying on this data is going to give the government an incomplete picture of what will happen in the future.

Future of SAR

While technology is helping to reduce the “Search” in SAR, the growing and changing population of Vancouver is going to put even more pressure on our SAR resources. It’s a fact that most immigrants coming to Canada have less water safety training than average Canadians and increasing economic status is going to have these people boating and recreating on the water in growing numbers, leading to significant increases in incidents. The need to rescue and help these people is going to continue to grow, putting strain on the current resources. Another factor leading to more incidents is that the Office of Boating Safety has been significantly reduced and will not being doing public education for boating safety, this will mean more people without proper information out on the water.

Land issue related to the base

In 1992 the old base was set on fire by a burning pleasure craft, (which would have been avoided had CG placed booms around the pilings) the CG was forced grudgingly to rebuild the base, but to a smaller footprint. The current site is built on fireproof pilings. As part of the DFO permit requirements the CG was obliged to build and maintain a habitat compensation reef just inshore of the base, which limited the size the rebuilt base. Even if the government sells the base, they may still be on the hook to maintain the reef or work that into any sales agreement which limits the resale value.

Another lingering issue is that the base would likely be considered a contaminated site and require extensive cleanup before it can be divested. Also I believe the land may be subject to a lands claim with the local First Nations and at the very least the sale will require extensive consultations with the band. All of the above means it is likely that the government will lose money on the sale of the base. If a sale goes through and later the government decides it will need a local base, Public Works will be hard pressed to find another location so well suited and even if they did, the price would be astronomical.

The cost to the government and the CPC

This government made a promise that the cuts to government would not affect frontline services. Cutting Kitslano is a direct reduction in an important and highly visible service. No matter how many media lines the CG writes and how they dress this issue up it is a steaming bucket of manure and it will land right into your government lap. The public is not buying any of the stuff the CG is selling and already it is hurting the government with people that normally would support the Conservative party.

Hollow and after the fact consultation

What has become clear in recent days is that the CG did not openly consult with anyone about the closures and the recent “stakeholder” meetings by the Minister was clearly window dressing as despite clear opposition from those stakeholders, the Minister went on to publicly state an hour later that the base will still close, which is a slap in the face of people that went to great effort to make time for the Minister on short notice. The damage control efforts by the Minister and CCG management have done nothing but sow mistrust with the marine community and the people that supported this government.

A mistake that will be hard and expensive to fix.

Closing this base is a bad idea and sometimes bad ideas take on a life of their own. The people involved realize it's a bad idea but can't find an honourable way to extract themselves from it. If the government changes it's mind and leaves the base open, then the opposition will pounce on them, some politicians believe that changing your decision is a sign of weakness. Let me say to you it is not. the government makes a huge number of decision and choices everyday, no matter how careful you are, some will turn out to be mistakes. Telling the people that you have listened and changed your plans shows strength and leadership to the people who voted for you and might vote for you. Canadians do not take kindly to any government that fails to listen to them as both the PC and Liberals have found out in the past.


  1. Yup I agree. Not to mention the massive fuel costs of the hovercraft further negate any management imagined savings.
    Seems counter to being green and Kyoto accords etc.
    Not to mention that people will die.
    Wish I could say more but coast guard management is slapping employees that speak against this decision....
    But yet we keep lighthouses, that haven't saved nearly as many people as Kitsilano an cost wayyyyyy more....