Abil­ity to respond to ma­rine dis­tress calls ques­tioned

Staff at com­mu­ni­ca­tions cen­tre in St. John’s fear­ful of planned cuts

The Southern Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - BY AN­DREW ROBIN­SON

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.”

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