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Searching For An Answer

Vancouver is currently ground zero in a battle being waged that will determine what form search and rescue (SAR) will take in this country for many years to come.


October 12, 2012
By Paul Dixon

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Vancouver is currently ground zero in a battle being waged that will determine what form search and rescue (SAR) will take in this country for many years to come. One of the fortune cookies in this year’s federal budget was the announced closing of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base, located at the mouth of False Creek in the heart of the region’s urban core. Since 1962, the former RCAF station has been a 24/7 coast guard response centre.

In Vancouver, response to the news was swift, extremely vocal and came from across the political spectrum. The mayor of Vancouver and the provincial minister of public safety, political polar opposites, were very much in tune in condemning the closure. They have been joined by groups representing every conceivable stakeholder – and the outcry shows no signs of abating six months later.

Two months after the budget was tabled, federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield told the Globe and Mail he wouldn’t be backing down from the decision, adding “as far as I’m concerned, that station is closing,” followed by, “nobody particularly cares for change, but we are responsible for taxpayers’ dollars and people want us to spend [them] effectively and efficiently.”

The government’s position is that the hovercraft stationed on Sea Island at YVR can handle the calls currently being handled by the Kitsilano base. The Kits base has one of the highest call volumes in Canada in a relatively small area that comprises Vancouver’s inner and outer harbour. The belief is that a 40-foot fast response boat capable of 26 knots and a rigid-hulled inflatable boat capable of 50-plus knots is ideal for the job. While the hovercraft have a top speed of 50 knots, they already have full dispatched events that see them cover a vast area taking in the Salish Sea (formerly the Georgia Strait) between Vancouver Island and the mainland, as well as 40 kilometres up the Fraser River.

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At the same time, another change in the coast guard universe saw the Coast Guard Auxiliary in B.C. replaced by the Royal Canadian Marine Search And Rescue (RCMSAR). The positive thing about the rebranding is a revitalization of the volunteer side of marine SAR and a much higher visibility. But what many may not realize is there is no longer a direct link with the Canadian Coast Guard. The federal government provides some funding for fuel and insurance, but the volunteers are responsible for all fundraising as a charity.

It’s simply a feat of fiscal conjuring – waving a wand that magically removes the financial burden from the federal house and leaves the responsibility of SAR on the doorstep of the local communities. But is this truly “effective and efficient?” It costs what it costs to provide a minimal level of service, whether the money comes from the government through taxation, charitable donation or the fundraising efforts of the volunteers. It’s not OK for the government to provide funding through taxation, but it is OK for that money to be raised through tax-deductible donations or the direct fundraising efforts of volunteer organizations. That’s the new world order.

The reality is that the SAR community across this country already runs largely on the backs of volunteers. Get away from the high-profile maritime and aviation responsibilities of the military and coast guard and you will quickly realize that SAR in Canada is driven by community-based resources; it’s done by those in the fixed-wing and rotary realms who give willingly of their time and expertise to serve their communities. How can we possibly quantify the true cost of volunteering in this context? How can you justify and measure the time of the many commercial helicopter operators who are there to provide their services and do it with no expectation of receiving any payment beyond a thank you for a job well done?

There is nothing wrong with providing community-level services from within the community when it comes to SAR. It gives a huge sense of accomplishment and ownership to those who are responsible. Unfortunately, not all communities have the resources or capabilities to meet the challenges they must confront and these are the realities that all governments must acknowledge. It’s a great thing to be able to volunteer, but it’s a terrible thing when it’s taken for granted.

Shirley Bond, B.C.’s former minister of public safety, had responded to Minister Ashfield’s remarks by stating, “I understand the need to make prudent financial decisions during challenging economic times, but it is essential that public safety be the primary consideration.” Closing the Kitsilano Coast Guard base does not adhere to this premise.


Paul Dixon is freelance writer and photojournalist living in Vancouver.


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