A Liberal MP wants the government to cancel its plans to move search-and-rescue co-ordination centres out of Quebec City and St. John’s because she fears the dispatchers in Trenton, Ont., and Halifax who will take over the duties won’t be able to understand distress calls in French or the thick accent of Newfoundland.
“We can see a loss of life if you don’t have someone with a thorough knowledge of the area and the language that’s being used,” Judy Foote, the MP for Random–Burin–St. George’s in Newfoundland, told a news conference on Tuesday.
Ms. Foote said when she speaks to fishermen in her own riding, “and they tell me of incidents that they’ve had at sea, if I didn't know them as well as I do, and speak to them on a constant basis, I wouldn’t understand them. So I understand perfectly that someone from Nova Scotia or someone from Ontario might not understand them.”
Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield told the House of Commons on June 8 that the search-and-rescue dispatch centres in St. John’s and Quebec would be closing as part of an effort to slice $56-million from his department’s budget this year. The government has said the closure of the two centres is expected to save about $1-million.
Coast Guard boats, planes and helicopters are not actually located at either of the two centres that will be shut down. Dispatchers at St. John’s must contact Gander, Nfld., Trenton or Halifax to request assistance when distress calls are received.
But the issue is not the location of the rescue equipment, Ms. Foote said. “The issue is getting the information quickly.”
There have been cases, she said, where dispatchers in Halifax have had to call the dispatchers in St. John’s and play them tapes of rescue calls from Newfoundland because they did not understand the people on the other end of the line.
And “media reports have shown that the Halifax and Trenton centres don’t seem to be ready to handle calls in French. The delay to get a French-speaking person on the phone to understand the request is unacceptable and again will only put lives in danger,” she said.
Mr. Ashfield said technology permits emergency calls to be routed through a central location while “existing search and rescue vessels will remain where they are currently based.”
Erin Filliter, a spokeswoman for Mr. Ashfield, pointed out that the joint search-and-rescue coordination centre in Victoria handles over 2,200 calls a year with 13 employees while the marine rescue co-ordination centre in St. John's handles 420 calls a year with 12 employees.
"The minister has been very clear that [closing the centres in St. John's and Quebec City] is a fiscally responsible and operationally sound decision; it streamlines services for Canadians and that is what our government has been elected to do," said Ms. Filliter.
She also noted that the federal Conservative government has invested $1.4-billion in the Coast Guard since 2006 to make sure that it has the tools and training that it needs. "We have also increased Coast Guard personel stationed in Newfoundland and Labrador by 33 per cent since 2006."
But Ms. Foote said local knowledge has also been critical in the past in ensuring the effective coordination of search and rescue efforts off Newfoundland and Labrador.
“When you have place names like South East Bight, or Gaultois, or La Poile, and you have someone on the other end who really isn’t familiar, and you have a situation happening offshore where a boat could be breaking in two or taking in water, there’s no one who’s too concerned about how explicit they are when they say the place they’re closest to,” she said.
When asked if the local names and language could not be part of training for new dispatchers in halifax and Trenton, Ms. Foote said: “Training takes time. We don’t have time.”