Sink Coast Guard, face protest
Union warns of consequences if dive rescue team gets cut
A union representing Coast Guard members hopes the agency bends on its decision to end its B.C.-based dive rescue team — reminding the Coast Guard of protests and even civil disobedience it faced over similar cuts in 2012.
The decision, announced last Thursday, will see seven members of the 26-person crew at its Sea Island hovercraft base in Richmond laid off and the rest reassigned to non-diving roles.
But concerns continue to surface about the decision, particularly about the impact on safety once rescuers are no longer able to enter sunken, capsized or submerged vessels and vehicles in what’s known as “penetrative dives.”
The cuts could save nearly $500,000 a year, said the federal agency’s western assistant commissioner Roger Girouard, though he estimated it would likely be less.
That’s comparable to the $700,000 that the former Conservative government of Stephen Harper hoped to save by shuttering the Kitsilano Coast Guard station in Vancouver — sparking protests and a 2015 Liberal promise to reverse the closure.
Axing a similarly costly facility just to the south feels like “hypocrisy,” argued Dave Clark, the Pacific region vicepresident of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees, which represents Coast Guard members. Clark said the union and its members are planning to fight the latest cut.
But not everyone supports a dedicated dive team. Metro spoke with a former Coast Guard diver of 20 years who moved into other agency roles shortly after the dive team first formed. Capt. Tony Toxopeus said he wasn’t surprised in the slightest about the move to discontinue the team but hoped the dive knowledge gained wouldn’t be entirely wasted when staff are reassigned.
“It became a big thorn in the Coast Guard’s side,” Toxopeus said in a phone interview. “The hovercraft unit is a great operation … but costs a horrendous amount of money to operate, even without having to add on extra divers.
“If they could look at me in the eye and promise me that the money they’re going to save on that program would be properly spent on search-and-rescue on the West Coast here, it wouldn’t be a bad decision. But you know what? They’re going to end up putting that money in the bucket somewhere, and who knows where it’ll end up getting spent.”
Girouard said the fact it’s the only such station in the entire Canadian Coast Guard’s operation — with ports elsewhere handling emergencies without such capacity — singled it out when the federal Liberals called for a staffing and budget review.
“That’s exactly the situation that Prince Rupert and Halifax face,” he said.
“No doubt there’s a diminution of capability, but it’s been a rare and unique capability that’s very rarely ever been employed.
“Not to suggest there haven’t been some saves in 20 years or so — there have and I’ll acknowledge that — but its rareness gave it some scrutiny.”
Clark and other members warned of the safety consequences of the decision: for instance, in past cases in which cars fell into the ocean and needed a diver to rescue a passenger — or recover their body.
“At the end of the day, we hope nobody drives off the end of a pier,” Girouard replied, “but if a vessel or vehicle does end up capsized, response will occur and the team will do its best from the surface side.
“Then there is some onus on somebody inside to try to effectively escape.”
They’re going to end up putting that money in the bucket somewhere, and who knows where it’ll end up getting spent. Capt. Tony Toxopeus
a Canadian Coast Guard hovercraft, based out of the sea island station in richmond, travels in english Bay in Vancouver.