Go back to the rescue centre drawing board
The announced closure of the regional Marine Rescue Sub-Centres (MRSCs) in Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador endangers the lives of fishers and recreational users of the waters off the east coast of both provinces by eliminating the essential local knowledge and expertise provided by the staff of these centres in the decision-making that leads to rescue efforts.
This decision is not based on “communications or technology” as has been posited by the advice given to the new minister of fisheries, Keith Ashfield, but rather on the desire of Department of Fisheries and Oceans ( DFO) bureaucrats in Ottawa to meet the goal of $56 million of reductions that the Treasury Board has demanded of them.
These MRSCs were set up in the ‘ 70s to ensure that local expertise and knowledge was key to the decision-making process that launches all air sea rescue missions.
It has always been clearly understood that a detailed, in-depth knowledge of the local coastline and the conditions on the water are of paramount importance in deciding how to go about the rescue attempt. It is this critical knowledge and expertise that resides within the staffs of the various regional MRSCs from coast to coast to coast and on the inland waters of this country.
Consider there is a vessel in distress 80 nautical miles off Cape Bonavista and in the area there are two boats who might be tasked to respond: one is 30 miles to the southwest and the other is 40 miles to the northeast.
Technology serves to provide data and communications with vessels which may be able to respond to the emergency. These technologies can tell the MRSC staff where the given vessels are, who they are and the conditions in the area.
Crucially, it is the local knowledge of the staff and their expertise to interpret the information and decide how to go about the rescue effort that makes all the difference. This is done in all cases on Canada’s east coast in conjunction with Halifax, as it is in charge of tasking air resources, if they are to be used.
In this hypothetical case, given a northwest wind and a south flowing current it makes more sense to “ task” the boat to the northeast to respond as she will be steaming both downwind and with the current, whereas the closer boat to the southwest will be beating into head-seas and up-current, and most likely longer.
Local knowledge paramount
The decision-making is aided by technology but is dependent upon local knowledge and expertise. I can say without fear of contradiction that nobody on the water anywhere in Canada wants to see decisions made by people unfamiliar with the waters where they are in trouble.
In all cases the technology serves to provide information, but it is the local expertise which enables the right decisions to be made and the right tools mobilized.
To call these MRSCs mere “call centres” indi- cates a gross misunderstanding of the critical role they play in saving lives. One cannot blame Ashfield for using that term, as it was the one provided in his briefing notes.
If I may be so bold as to make a suggestion towards resolving this issue.
First I would explain that I am well known for not being political and this is born out by the fact that the Conservatives, the NDP and the Liberals all accepted me as moderator in the only fisheries debate held in our province during the last federal election.
I would say to Minister Ashfield: please go back and look seriously at the briefing notes you were given in terms of their content in relation to all the outside information that has been made public since you made your announcement.
Evaluate the available data and if you still think that closing these centres will not increase the risk to the lives of mariners, let your deci- sion stand.
However, if you come to the conclusion that you acted in good faith but upon bad advice, then stand up in the House of Commons and tell the people of the affected provinces, and by extension all Canadians, that given what you have found out, you are rescinding the decision.
I realize that it is not easy for a minister in the cauldron of political infighting that is Ottawa to do this, so I would say the following to the member of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition: why not, in the interest of the lives of mariners in Canada, say to Minister Ashfield — “ We on our part will not try and make political hay out of this during a review and, if the facts warrant changing your decision, we will applaud you for making a courageous decision rather than trying to take political credit for the change.”
This should not be about politics but be about saving lives. Jim Winter, a former host of CBC’s “Fish
eries Broadcast,” writes from St. John’s.