Italy call transfer came out of the blue for provider
Halifax-based company never told calls were being relayed to Rome
The head of the company that is again handling marine medical emergency calls from Newfoundland and Labrador does not understand why calls for help were ever sent to Rome in the first place.
"We've been providing services … smoothly and continuously for all that time," Susan Helliwell, the chief executive officer of Halifax-based Praxes Medical Group, told CBC News.
The Praxes contract with the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John's was set to expire at the end of June, but amid the budget-related closure of the centre over the last few weeks, a decision was somehow made to transfer those calls elsewhere.
During the handover of the sub-centre's main work to the Canadian Coast Guard's main rescue centre in Halifax, medical calls off Newfoundland and Labrador went first to the Queen Elizabeth II Health Sciences Centre in Halifax.
But because that didn't work out, calls were then routed to CIRM, a free service based in Rome that is accustomed to handling maritime distress calls, often from developing nations.
Along the way, no one informed Praxes that it would not be handling calls from Newfoundland and Labrador.
"We have received no official notification at all from the coast guard about any of this activity," Helliwell said.
Late Wednesday afternoon, after CBC News asked for federal comment on the transfer, the coast guard signed a contract with Praxes to continue service not only to Newfoundland and Labrador until the end of June, but to cover the Maritime provinces as well.
Meanwhile, officials with the QEII in Halifax said the hospital never had any formal or informal contract with the coast guard to provide assistance.
Ashfield defends use of Rome-based service
The revelations have sparked a political uproar, with Opposition MPs clamouring for an explanation. Prime Minister Stephen Harper defended the handling of the case Thursday in the House of Commons.
As well, Federal Fisheries Minister Keith Ashfield said the government has availed of the Rome-based service from time to time.
"In the event that there are emergencies, Mr. Speaker, sufficient consequences that would require that we have to go a backup, we do in fact use an internationally recognized company to perform that task," Ashfield told the Commons.
Liberal Scott Simms was one of several MPs who raised the issue in Parliament Thursday.
"Mr. Speaker, picture yourself in the north Atlantic, 130 kilometres out, with no presence of the Government of Canada to help you out," Simms said.
St. John's East MP Jack Harris said he had trouble accepting the federal government's explanations of what happened.
"We cannot close the barn door. The horse has gotten out on this one, and I have lost count of how many times the government has taken wrong decisions on search and rescue," said Harris. "Who signed off on this outrageous experiment?"
Ashfield defended the decision to call upon CIRM's services.
["It is] internationally known and has provided backup service to our centres for many years. It is the same service centre that provided backup for the Swissair disaster," Ashfield said.
"It is a renowned company, well known. We use it as a backup only and normally operate through channels in Halifax."
With files from Lee Pitts