After confirming the closure of the Coast Guard communication centre in Comox, the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) did not speculate on what that could mean for Coast mariners.
“Service provided by Coast Guard communications centres with outdated technology, like Comox, will be merged into one of the larger, better equipped and resourced centres that are being modernized in British Columbia,” said DFO’s manager of media relations, Frank Stanek.
Two communication centres will then serve the West Coast: Prince Rupert in the North and Sidney in the South.
The Coast Guard said May 17 that it would take advantage of new technologies to consolidate its operation along the Coast. Existing radio towers and radar facilities will continue to operate, but the two remaining centres will take on additional responsibilities and staff.
“The modernized centres will be able to seamlessly pick up any calls from other connected facilities,” read the release, which claimed the centres marked for closure have been limited in “their ability to cover or share workload in emergencies or unforeseen events like power failures.”
For Eliza Kinley, a volunteer with the Pender Coast Guard Auxiliary, the worry is that two centres might not be able to handle the number of emergency calls that would otherwise have gone to another location.
“Their resources are already taxed,” she said, pointing to an incident that occurred on the Agamemnon Channel on May 6.
Roughly a few minutes before noon that Sunday, Derek Cadwallader and three friends had to abandon ship in the channel after discovering the vessel had caught fire, the radio useless. Black smoke swelled from the boat.
Cadwallader managed to contact his wife Gail on a cell phone. They both dialed 911.
Derek was put through to the Comox Coast Guard. Gail was connected with the Pender Harbour volunteer fire department.
“Thank you to Bob Fielding and [fire chief] Don Murray for arriving first on the scene and taking charge,” Gail wrote in an open letter to the Sunshine Coast, May 15.
According to the Cadwalladers, Fielding and Murray boarded the vessel, put out an engine room fire and shut down the battery systems before Coast Guard responders from Powell River and Madeira Park arrived.
After finding the emergency alleviated, the volunteers with the Coast Guard auxiliary could not get permission from Comox to tow the damaged boat back to shore, ostensibly due to the heavy boat traffic in the area.
“They put the call out over the radio on channel 16, basically, ‘any mariners in the area please respond to this, we’d like you to tow,’ Kinley explained. “We were sitting right there and they understand that, but it’s Coast Guard policy … all the members on the vessel were frustrated at not being able to tow.”
Once again it fell upon the fire department volunteers to help. They attached a line to the Cadwalladers’ boat and towed it safely back to Garden Bay.
“This shows how important the Pender Harbour Fire Department and people like Bob Fielding and Don Murray are in our community,” Gail said in her letter.