The Canadian Coast Guard is pressing ahead with plans to close three of five marine communications centres in B.C. and run everything out of Victoria and Prince Rupert.
Despite union warnings that the moves will undermine safety, the federal agency intends to shut the Ucluelet and the Vancouver centres by the end of April and close a third station at Comox later this year or early in 2016.
The centres broadcast weather and navigational warnings, regulate marine traffic and monitor distress and safety calls.
The Coast Guard, which first announced the closures in 2012, says it has been testing new technology that will allow officers to monitor larger areas from fewer centres.
Assistant Commissioner Roger Girouard acknowledged that there have been a few “glitches” and delays, but he said the technology has been approved for use in the field.
“I don’t see that we’re going to leave gaps and glaring safety issues,” he said in an interview Friday. “I think we’re actually going to get better at doing what we do.”
But Unifor Local 2182, which represents marine communications officers, questions the wisdom of relying on a single centre in Victoria to monitor the “busiest boating area in Canada” in the Salish Sea.
“It’s about marine safety at a time when you’re trying to push the B.C. coast as the gateway to the Pacific and increase marine traffic,” said regional director Allan Hughes.
He is worried that the Victoria centre will have so much radio noise that it will be difficult to hear a weak call for help.
“It’s not like a phone rings in a 911 centre and you just pick it up and answer it,” he said. “You’re very much actively listening for those calls for help — even if it’s coming from a kayak with a small portable radio.”
Hughes also expressed concern that the Victoria centre will rely entirely on radar to monitor movement in the busy Vancouver harbour, where, the union contends, there are a number of radar “blind areas.”
Under the current system, marine communications workers can look out a window and see the boats if they fail to show up on radar, he said.
“It would be like taking the air traffic control tower out of Vancouver airport and moving it to the area flight centre out in Abbotsford in a building. You can’t see anything.”
However, Girouard played down those concerns.
“We don’t control ships by looking out windows anymore in the same way that airport traffic controllers don’t look out the window and tell airplanes how to land,” he said.
“The technology has moved on.”
He acknowledged that radar “blind spots” exist, but he said there are other systems in place to compensate for that.
“You may have a radar blind spot, but you’ve also got a track that’s automated, and you’ve also got an automated information system that’s broadcasting all the time,” said Girouard, a retired rear admiral in the Canadian Navy.
In addition, captains and pilots are ultimately responsible for their vessels, he said.
“They’re guys that are very professional, very smart on the bridges of those ships that are there and have a greater responsibility to make sure they don’t go aground, they don’t collide.”
As for the potential “noise” issue in Victoria and Prince Rupert centres, Girouard said the Coast Guard understands the concern and is taking steps to deal with it.
“You can amplify technologically a weak call,” he said.
“An operator can put a headset on to make sure the noise in the space isn’t bothering him. So we’re looking at that already.”
Girouard said the Victoria centre will become “one of the largest traffic management centres in the world” and the Coast Guard will manage any issues that arise.