Ability to respond to marine distress calls questioned
Staff at communications centre in St. John’s fearful of planned cuts
A radio operator believes impending changes to the night shift for the Canadian Coast Guard’s Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) Centre in St. John’s could affect its ability to save lives.
Under the new system, when staff miss a night shift because of illness, vacation time or any other reason, David Guinchard said, the position will not be back-filled, even though MCTS is an essential service.
This will leave two staff members manning a centre traditionally staffed by three people for all hours of each day, every year.
Mr. Guinchard is shop steward for Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) Union Local 2182. “We’ll be operating a man short. The main role of MCTS is to monitor international distress frequencies and respond to distress calls for vessels needing assistance.
“Our biggest fear is that, by reducing us to the two people on night shifts, that’s going to greatly compromise our ability to respond to these distress calls that we receive.”
MCTS also regulates vessel traffic, provides mariners with weather warnings and safety notices, screens foreign vessels entering Canadian waters and works closely with environmental departments on marine matters of interest.
Staff rely on medium-frequency, long-range radios, where gains made in range are counteracted by poor signal quality. The St. John’s centre covers an area spanning from the Arctic Circle to the Caribbean, stretching east to the British Isles.
“Within that area, we’re responsible for everything from fishing vessels, pleasure crafts, cruise ships, all types of commercial vessels and cargo ships, as well as anything involved in the offshore oil industry.”
He said receiving signals from all corners of the Atlantic Ocean can make messages difficult to decipher.
“It will be more challenging for us to detect those calls and respond to them effectively.”
He noted the three people staffed on any given shift each have unique responsibilities, and one person devotes a typical 12-hour shift solely to marine distress frequencies.
“A lot of mariners wait until the last minute to make a call, and usually they only get one call out before they abandon ship. So, it’s very critical that we pick that up immediately and accurately.”
In situations where only two staff members will be on hand, Mr. Guinchard indicated, the potential to become overwhelmed or distracted from that role will be increased.
“We all take our jobs very seriously and consider ourselves to be very professional, and we have great fear this could certainly impact our ability to save lives.”
He said staff were initially told the change would be implemented by the end of January.
“It’s happening sooner rather than later.”
The night shift at the centre runs from 7:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m., and the hours affected by the change will be from 1 a.m. to 7 a.m. He said this cut will affect 11 stations across the country. The centre in St. John’s is the only one of five in Newfoundland and Labrador due to be affected by the move.
In an email to The Telegram, a spokesman for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) said, as with any organization, it must ensure services are delivered in the most efficient way possible and the number of staff on duty reflects the workload.
He said the approach to night shift staffing being implemented has been used successfully in Victoria, British Columbia, and the Quebec region for several years and that it is based on solid evidence from the 2010 workload study and subsequent risk assessment study. The CAW participated in both studies.
Mr. Guinchard suggested the assessment did show an added risk would be created in reducing a night shift to two staff members. He said ways to improve procedures were also discussed during the risk assessment process.
“It seems like the people in Ottawa who are making these decisions are quite disconnected from the true reality of life at sea in Newfoundland and the complexity of our radio operations.”
The DFO spokesman added that local supervisors will still have the ability to schedule overtime shifts when it is deemed necessary to do so.
“Maritime safety is the top priority for the Canadian Coast Guard and we would not implement any policies that would jeopardize this.”