A 21st century betrayal

Federal government’s SAR cutbacks will cost lives

Your heart would ache, all for their sake, if you were standing by
To see them drowning, one by one, and no relief being nigh;
Struggling with the boisterous waves, all in their youth and bloom,
But at last they sank, to rise no more, all on the eight of June.

A fellow sailor, John Grace, wrote these words about the loss of the Petty Harbour bait skiff in 1852, returning from Conception Bay. Of her crew of seven, only one survived to be rescued when help finally arrived.

A tragedy that tore every heart in the community, it’s a tragedy given new meaning by a federal government whose decision to close the St. John’s Maritime Rescue Sub-Station will increase the likelihood of more such tragedies striking our communities. Opposition to the move is mounting, and for good reason.

159 years after the loss of the Petty Harbour bait skiff, you’d think tragedies like this would not still be happening, at least not often; that we would have harnessed the technological wisdom and ingenuity, and the humanistic determination, to keep our sailors and fishers safe on the seas where they work. The families struck by that disaster would never have imagined that, 159 years later, their government would have the ability but not the will to reduce the chance of tragedy striking their community again.

Ignoring the evidence

Earlier this year, a federal government committee heard testimony from Philip Macdonald, a survivor of the Melina and Keith II which sank in 2005. On a September day, off Cape Bonavista, it took on water and began sinking shortly after 3 p.m. The emergency beacon activated. But no rescue came.

“It was shortly after 5:30 p.m. that the Melina and Keith II slipped below the diesel-soaked waves and all the men plunged into the water. Two men drowned right away, and I’ll never forget the look on one of the men’s faces as he screamed in terror, trying to learn how to swim, smacking his hands all around and slipping beneath, never to be seen again.”

Around 3:30 p.m., the electronic distress signal was picked up by satellite but was treated as a potential false alarm. It wasn’t until 4:44 p.m. that the situation was recognized as an emergency, a position located and rescue staff were notified. But rescue staff were on two-hour standby since it was after 4 p.m. and they’d gone home for the day.

The emergency beacon activated. But no rescue came.

For the next several hours, the remaining survivors clung to wreckage, reciting prayers and singing songs together. They exchanged last words with each other, in case some of them didn’t make it.

At 6:10 p.m., three hours after they started going down and gave the alert, a Cormorant helicopter was finally launched to rescue them. It would take an hour and 13 minutes to reach them.

“I figured it was a little before 7 p.m. when my mind was telling me it was all over. I had extreme cramping throughout my body and I was biting my teeth together so hard I thought they were going to crack. Memories of my childhood, family, and friends flashed through my mind. I finally made the decision to give up, since there was no one going to rescue us. I held my breath as long as I could.

“I saw this bright light, but I was still in the water. The light came from a boat off in the distance. I shouted out to the other men in the water, ‘There’s a boat!’ Adrenalin started pumping. But just as quick as she appeared, she vanished. My heart sank. I looked over to where one of the men was just a minute ago, but he was gone, and floating right where he had been was the piece of styrofoam he had been holding onto. I realized how unbearable it was for him to see our chance of rescue disappear.”

Minutes later, another rescue ship arrived and he was pulled from the water. Of a crew of eight, four men survived to be pulled from the water.

Four did not.

People and knowledge versus technology

The government’s argument is that life-saving technology is so advanced that it doesn’t matter where it’s located.

“False distress alerts for the … beacon are about 95 per cent worldwide.”

When the Melina and Keith II sank, it was equipped with this technology. However, according to the investigation, although the beacon activated, “statistics gathered in 2003 show that false distress alerts for the … beacon are about 95 per cent worldwide. Furthermore, it can take the [satellite] system up to 90 minutes to pinpoint the beacon’s signal. In this occurrence … it was not until 16:44, or 72 minutes later … that a position was known.”

Because of the high rate of false alerts, and the low number of staff, the ones receiving the signals first spend time phoning around trying to reach the captain by phone to determine whether they’re even at sea, let alone in crisis. The dispatcher did this for about an hour before the evidence began suggesting a real emergency.

Moreover, the single dispatcher on duty didn’t think to check another piece of recently installed [VMS] technology that would have enabled a quicker fix of the vessel’s location. Although the dispatcher didn’t violate procedures, the report noted that more experienced rescue coordinators had been able to use this additional technology to find vessels.

The tragedy resulted from multiple factors, and wasn’t prevented by the St. John’s sub-centre. But it sends an important lesson: technology failed to save lives. More people, and more experience, and more familiarity with the vessel and the area could have helped save lives.

More than just technology

The Search And Rescue (SAR) centre doesn’t just receive satellite signals and click computer buttons, as the federal government would make it sound. One of the things they do, upon receiving a distress call, is coordinate with the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary (CCGA). The CCGA is comprised of all those vessels and people around the country who have volunteered and registered to help in the event of an emergency. Many of them will wind up being closest to where the incident is happening, so they’re a sort of first responder.

The more people they’re responsible for, the less effectively they can do their jobs.

According to a 2008 report, the Newfoundland and Labrador CCGA had the highest number of registered vessels in the entire country (453, compared to 67 in the Pacific, and 438 in the entire Maritimes). Moreover, Newfoundland and Labrador’s reliance on the Coast Guard Auxiliary is the highest in the country (far above the national average: auxiliary vessels were first on the scene in over 40 per cent of incidents).

Why is this important? The SAR Coordination Centre will not be dealing with computer signals and satellite beeps, it’ll be dealing with hundreds of individual seamen and seawomen, with local accents, different personalities, local slang and names for places, and local points of reference. It must deploy these vessels to rescue other vessels, which will also be communicating with them in local accents and probably making panicked descriptions of local landmarks and nicknames. The local CCGA has already spoken up against the cuts, noting for instance the large number of place names in this province that are written completely differently from the way they sound. The slightest mistake or misunderstanding could send rescuers to a wrong location, or result in important information being missed. Rescue coordinators must be familiar with the people and the area they’re coordinating. The wider that area is, and the more people they’re responsible for, the less effectively they can do their jobs.

The importance of local knowledge

Testifying before a British Parliamentary Committee, a coast guard officer in that country cited an incident in which a canoeist in distress couldn’t provide a location, but the SAR officer receiving the call was familiar enough with local waters that he identified the location based only on the wave formations described by the canoeist. The officer also described how staff at regional rescue centres in the UK have to be tested in their local knowledge every two years, and must obtain additional local knowledge certificates in order to be promoted.

The officer outlined why all the best maps in the world won’t help a distant, unfamiliar rescue operator: “You cannot have a ‘call centre’ mentality in the Coastguard like you do in other emergency services, why? Because of one, fundamentally important difference – our casualties are not stationary, they drift.”

“…one fundamentally important difference: our casualties are not stationary, they drift.”

Even in Canada, the very government departments which now claim local knowledge is not that necessary, say the exact opposite throughout their training manuals and policies and procedures. As the CCGA literature states: “Their intimate knowledge of their own waters and coastline is often vital to a successful rescue.” Another recent report on CCGA operations warned of the dangers experienced by Inuit and aboriginal mariners, who might experience language barriers when trying to access emergency services (provided officially only in English and French). Familiarity and ability to communicate effectively is important, it observes, because the “responders rely on experience and local knowledge to resolve incidents.”

We’re not the only ones…

What’s gone unmentioned in much of the local outrage is the fact that the U.K. is going through similar turmoil. Late last year, the new Conservative-led government in that country also announced plans to dramatically downsize its coast guard and search and rescue operations, including the closure of several local SAR sub-stations, moving SAR coordination to a few centralized hubs. In the UK the uproar against this plan has been even more deafening than in Canada – perhaps because so many more people live closer to the ocean there. But the concerns are exactly the same. And in the UK, they’re proposing to go from 18 centres to nine. In Canada – with a coastline 16 times bigger than the U.K. – there are three centres and two sub-centres, and now the one dealing with the highest proportion of distress cases – St. John’s – is slated to close.

In the UK, they’re proposing to go from 18 centres to nine. In Canada – with a coastline 16 times bigger than the UK – there are three centres and two sub-centres, and now the one dealing with the highest proportion of distress cases – St. John’s – is slated to be closed.

Some UK coast guard staff published a letter criticizing the plan that would:

“… replace an experienced operator with a full maritime picture of their operational area backed up by knowledge of the geography, topography, culture, local accents, languages and personalities by a distant operator with none of this awareness … We have great misgivings that databases or google earth can handle colloquial place names, nick names, Gaelic spelling, accent difficulties, communications black spots etc. …We are afraid that this delay built in at the outset will place people in much greater danger, especially those who are in the greatest distress …”

They also noted that much of the advanced technology that distant high-tech response centres rely on is only installed in large industrial vessels, and don’t exist on many smaller boats. Meanwhile, an article in The Guardian cited concerns by former coast guard staff that “under the proposals, response times to emergency calls could be increased by 10 minutes – potentially the difference between life and death [claims denied by government]… there are fears that with just three main coastguard centres, the local knowledge that enables coastguards all over the country to pinpoint a location within seconds, often based on the name of a campsite or a landmark, would be lost.”

Several teams of local coast guard volunteers have also threatened to quit, noting that the closures will put the lives of rescuers at risk too.

Corporate streamlining unacceptable in SAR

Anybody sitting outside a Wal-Mart as they dispose of hundreds of rotten fruits might wonder how in the world they ever make a profit. But the logic of transnational corporate organization is this: small, localized losses and inefficiencies are compensated for by the overall scale of growth and cost-savings. This is the logic the government is aiming to implement. But in search and rescue, each of those localized losses is a human life. And the greatest of cost-savings is not sufficient compensation for even one of those lives.

This is being done by a prime minister and government that really, really want to be seen as swashbuckling warriors…

In emergency operations, you don’t operate along a cost-efficiency model, you operate along a model that goes like this: redundancies and duplications save lives. Coast guard members fighting the cuts in the UK pointed out that when a fire in the building forced the evacuation of one maritime rescue centre, they were able to transfer operations to the other (18) centres with very little interruption. If one of the three Canadian centres – already strained to the limit – catches fire, what happens then? This also became a concern during the flu pandemic: having multiple, geographically dispersed locations reduces the impact if something happens to any one of them. Or as some might say, don’t put your eggs in one basket.

The tragic irony of it is that this is being done by a prime minister and government that really, really want to be seen as swashbuckling warriors; so much so that they’re spending billions to send troops to bomb Libya, and to buy fighter jets to fly around the Arctic (where, let’s be honest, the Russians pose less of a threat to Canadian lives than a single iceberg in the Atlantic). Yet the one place where Canadian lives are actually at risk, and where Canadians are being killed in our own territory, is the place they’re running away from. This is the worst form of cowardice: the cowardice that abandons the people you’re responsible to protect, while deluding yourself into thinking you’re doing a noble service. And it’s all being done to save $56 million – one eighth the price of a single one of the 65 fighter jets the government is purchasing.

The number of distress cases is only going to rise off our shores. Increased oil development means increased – and more dangerous – marine vessel activity. In the event of an accident in the offshore oil operations, rescue personnel will have to coordinate with industry owners and operators based in St. John’s. Moreover, increased tourism also means a dramatic increase in boating activity, and in this case it involves many smaller boats with less experienced crews and passengers. The logic of the matter says we must increase resources at the St. John’s sub-centre, not close it entirely. The tragic results of that decision, if it is not reversed, will line the tear-stained verses of many a song and poem for generations to come.

When the sad news arrived next day in dear old St. John’s town,
There was crying and lamenting on the streets both up and down.
Their mothers were lamenting, crying for those they bore
On the boisterous waves they found their graves, where they ne’er shall see more.

On Saturday June 25 there will be a protest rally from 11:30am – 1:00pm to oppose the closure of the St. John’s Marine Rescue Centre. The rally will be held in St. John’s on Harbour Drive (behind the Fortis Building). The rally is organized by MayDay NL: a broad-based group of organizations consisting of labour, municipalities, students, political parties, community groups and concerned individuals who have come together to oppose the closure of the Marine Rescue Centre in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador.
For more information check out the Facebook event site or contact Keith Dunne, Canadian Federation of Students – Newfoundland and Labrador (CFS-NL) 709.737.3204 (office) 709.687.5640 (cellular).

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