Criticism builds over rescue centre closure

A federal government critic is describing a federal budget decision to close the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John's as negligent.

A federal government critic is describing a federal budget decision to close the Maritime Rescue Sub-Centre in St. John's as negligent.

"I think this is one of the most outrageous decisions that I've heard out of government in a long time," said St. John's East MP Jack Harris.

He argued the quality of search and rescue services in Newfoundland and Labrador will suffer as a result.

"Here we've got a rescue co-ordinating centre with coast guard people who know every nook and cranny, thousands of kilometres of coast line, to move that out of Newfoundland and Labrador is an act of negligence," said the federal NDP's Harris.

The centre, which answers hundreds of calls for help annually, operates out of the coast guard station.

'Maritime safety services are a top priority'—DFO official

The federal fisheries department is defending the decision to close the centre.

"Maritime safety services are a top priority, and must be delivered in the most efficient, cost-effective way. New communications technologies have come on stream. As a result, search and rescue co-ordination services in Quebec and St. John's will be consolidated into existing Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centres," according to an email to CBC News from Frank Stanek, a DFO media relations manager.

He said the rescue centre's closure is part of $56 million in Department of Fisheries and Oceans cuts to Newfoundland and Labrador, promised in this week's federal budget.

"By consolidating these services, CCG will continue to provide the same level of bilingual, on-the-ground SAR support in a more efficient way. By refocusing our services and eliminating duplication, we will be able to provide more efficient delivery — including in marine search and rescue," wrote Stanek.

The centre's role will be moved to the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centres in Halifax, and Trenton, Ont. As many as 12 jobs may be lost with the closure.

Wednesday morning, the union that represents the centre’s workers told CBC News  it had no idea the centre's closure was coming.

"This came not only as a surprise it was a total shock. This was the last thing we would have expected, I would have thought coast guard would have found savings in a non-search-and-rescue area," said Christine Collins, the National President of the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees.

Politicians also expressed outrage about the closure. Provincial New Democrat Leader Lorraine Michael says she can't believe the decision by Ottawa.

"It's actually incomprehensible. Basically, what I see this as, is the federal government saying they don't care about the lives of people in Newfoundland and Labrador."

Provincial Fisheries Minister Clyde Jackman also questions the decision, especially since the Cougar helicopter crash made offshore safety a priority.

"Everything we've heard in the last couple of years with the Cougar crash all point to the need for improved services," he told CBC News. "It's just mindboggling that a decision like this has been made."

Jackman is encouraging the oil industry, fishing industry and every municipality in the province to lobby Ottawa to have the decision reversed.

In the fishing community of Port de Grave, about 90 kilometres west of St. John's, fisherman Nelson Bussey said he too isn't happy about the closure. "You would think you would be on the scene. Like, in any operation where a decision has to be made - on the scene, not far removed."

Darryl Percy is the skipper of the vessel Conception Run. He questions whether the federal government is worried about people who make a living on the water. "Safety of the fishermen out working, and fisherpeople? Should be top priority. But (it) seems like the government just don't care."

According to the coast guard's website, the Newfoundland and Labrador Region has the highest proportion of distress incidents in Canada.

The site says the St. John's rescue centre responds in an average year to approximately 500 incidents involving 2,900 people.

The coast guard says 28 per cent of those incidents are classified as distress calls, in which 600 lives are saved and 18 lives are lost, on average. The centre is responsible for 900,000 square kilometres of ocean and 28,956 kilometres of coastline.