"Echoey and garbled" — that's how a union describes marine communication transmissions received through the same kind of technology that is slated to replace a Coast Guard communications station in Comox.

Unifor, the union that represents coast guard communications workers, is currently fighting to keep the Comox Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) centre open.


A member of the Canadian Coast Guard sits in the Marine Communications and Traffic Service operation in Iqaluit in 2009. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

The Comox MCTS centre is slated to close, because of a decision made in 2012 by the then-Conservative government as part of a plan to reorganize coast guard operations nation-wide and run all West Coast marine communications out of MCTS centres in Prince Rupert and Sidney.

Through the Freedom of Information Act, Unifor obtained audio exchanges between vessels and the MCTS centre in Iqaluit that already has the new technology installed.

"In some instances, the transmissions are so rife with echoes and static they are distorted beyond comprehension", said Joie Warnock, Unifor's Western Director in a statement.

"We're talking about vital communications here with the potential to be a life or death situation." 

Parliamentary study regarding Comox centre

The audio is representative of the new technology, said Scott Hodge, a Unifor spokesperson and former Coast Guard member.

"When you get transmissions in some areas from vessels they are echoey and garbled as well," he told host Robyn West on All Points West.

"I was in Prince Rupert in January and heard that same sort of thing happening there."

On March 10 Unifor presented the audio to the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, which is conducting a parliamentary study to review the decision to close the Comox MCTS centre.

Coast Guard says problems are being fixed

Roger Girouard, the assistant commissioner for the Canadian Coast Guard's Western Region, told All Points West that the audio from Iqaluit was from a time when an "early version of the new software was being introduced."


Roger Girouard is the assistant commissioner for the Canadian Coast Guard’s Western Region. (Canadian Coast Guard)

He said the software had a number of issues and the installation was halted, and since then there have been a number of improvements.

"Prince Rupert, which has been modernized for a period of time, had some sound quality issues as well, and that has been worked on since last fall in a very aggressive way," Girouard said.

He added that the technology is still in the process of being installed in Sidney, but said "the majority of sound glitches have been addressed."

Hodge from Unifor said he is aware that improvements have been made in some cases, but says there's "a flaw somewhere in the design."

"The problem you're hearing with the echoes, that's a systemic problem because of the way the system is designed, not because of atmospherics or any kind of conditions from equipment," he said.

"That just shouldn't be there in operational equipment."

Fisheries Minister defends new technology

Concerns about the technology in the consolidated centres has been raised repeatedly in the past.

Last month Hunter Tootoo, Liberal Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, was asked by the NDP in question period if he will abandon plans to shut down the Comox Station.

Tootoo said the new equipment in the consolidated centres replaces the "30-year-old technology" in stations like Comox, but did not say when the Liberal government would close the centre, or whether it would wait for the findings of the parliamentary study.

"This technology is exactly what my staff needs in those centres to keep people safe. It's like … switching from a dial phone to a smartphone," he said.

With files from CBC's All Points West

To hear the full story listen to the audio labelled: Unifor says 'garbled' audio raises concerns about new coast guard technology