Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to have this opportunity to respond to this issue raised by my hon. colleague, the member of Parliament for St. John's East, regarding the consolidation of the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue services, and to correct much of the misinformation that I have been hearing so far.
Please let me begin by expressing, on behalf of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans and the Canadian Coast Guard, our commitment to ensuring maritime safety throughout Canada.
The recent announcements relating to the Coast Guard search and rescue program are a product of our fiscal responsibility, as well as a positive step towards a more streamlined and efficient maritime search and rescue program. I can assure members that the decision to consolidate search and rescue services, and the consolidation of search and rescue services in Greater Vancouver, in particular, were made with careful consideration to public safety.
When Canadians went to the polls on May 2 of last year, they delivered a strong and clear mandate to us, the newly elected government. Canadians chose public safety balanced with fiscal responsibility. Canadians asked that the government provide the same service at reduced cost, and this is what the Department of Fisheries and Oceans along with all other departments, have set in motion.
My colleagues and I are in agreement that we will deliver on this mandate, by ensuring the Canadian Coast Guard is providing effective and efficient services in the best interests of all Canadians while ensuring that safety is not compromised. Saving lives remains a top priority for this government, and indeed for all federal departments and agencies.
For those who do not know, the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue mandate is to coordinate search and rescue missions within the three search and rescue regions and international waters, provide vessels to respond to search and rescue incidents in areas of the Canadian Coast Guard responsibility and provide communications and alerting services. Although the Coast Guard ensures search and rescue coverage is provided in areas of federal responsibility, it does so within a system of available resources. This means there are numerous players that can be called upon to respond to a search and rescue incident. Moreover, Coast Guard vessels may not be the most appropriate asset to respond to a mariner in distress, depending on the proximity.
The search and rescue system is, “The combined facilities, equipment and procedures established in each search and rescue region to provide the response to search and rescue...”. This systems approach allows Coast Guard search and rescue coordinators to task the closest available asset to respond to an incident on the water.
Canada is a signatory to the 1979 International Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue, and over the years we have built strong partnerships, both internationally and domestically, to deliver one of the most effective maritime search and rescue services in the world. The Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue record speaks for itself. On any given day, it saves eight lives. In any given year, it coordinates responses to over 4,000 maritime search and rescue calls across the country.
The Canadian Coast Guard fleet includes 116 vessels, plus one additional training vessel and 22 helicopters. This fleet provides support to search and rescue, with 41 station-based search and rescue vessels or lifeboat stations that operate year-round, or during the peak season of April to November in Quebec and the central and Arctic regions. There are also six patrol-mode vessels, which provide offshore search and rescue services, and other large Coast Guard vessels that can be called upon.
Across the country, the Coast Guard also operates 24 inshore rescue boats that augment services during the busy summer boating season, typically from the end of May to the beginning of September. In fact, the inshore rescue boats handle up to 914 total search and rescue incidents in a three-month period.
The consolidation of the marine rescue sub-centres in St. John's and Quebec City with the joint rescue coordination centres in Halifax and Trenton will facilitate incident response coordination by co-locating both air and maritime personnel in a single rescue centre. Co-location will provide for closer communication between the Canadian Coast Guard and Canadian Forces personnel, ultimately to the benefit of Canadians.
All centres are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, year-round, by Canadian Coast Guard maritime search and rescue coordinators, who are responsible for the planning, coordination, conduct and control of maritime search and rescue operations. These services will continue to be available in both official languages. As a result of improving existing language profiles at the Halifax and Trenton centres to meet the needs of francophone mariners, bilingual capacity will actually be increased above the levels currently in place at those centres.
All facets of consolidation have been considered, planned for and addressed through a solid implementation plan, which will cover all operational requirements and lays the groundwork for a successful transition. I am pleased to report that the marine rescue sub-centre in St. John's was successfully consolidated on April 25 into the joint rescue coordination centre in Halifax. On-the-job training of new coordinators is continuing, and levels of service are being maintained.
Efforts to consolidate the Quebec sub-centre into both Halifax and Trenton are well underway, in co-operation with our partners at the Canadian Forces. We expect to see a successful transition in Quebec, as we saw with the consolidation of the St. John's centre on April 25, perhaps by the spring of next year. As we have always said, this transition will have no impact on existing search and rescue coordination service standards.
The Canadian Coast Guard, on behalf of the Minister of Fisheries and Oceans, is responsible for the effective and efficient use of federally supported maritime search and rescue resources to respond to search and rescue calls. Collectively, the Canadian maritime search and rescue system saves 95% of lives at risk annually. These results could not be achieved without a system of resources to call upon.
Maritime search and rescue in Canada continues to require a network of assets and resources to work together to provide coverage, and capability to respond to mariners in distress or potential distress. These resources include Coast Guard's lifeboats, inshore rescue boats, large Coast Guard vessels, and Coast Guard auxiliary units, which are reimbursed through contribution agreements.
Search and rescue coordinators also have access to and are able to mobilize other on-water resources, such as police and fire vessels. In addition to these responders, any vessel close enough to provide assistance to a vessel in distress can be called upon under the Canada Shipping Act and international law. These are referred to as “vessels of opportunity”.
I would like to take this opportunity to specifically address the concerns surrounding the planned closure of the Kitsilano lifeboat station in Vancouver harbour.
It is important for Canadians to understand that Vancouver is currently the only major port in Canada with a Canadian Coast Guard lifeboat station. In fact, in addition to a lifeboat station, it has the Sea Island hovercraft station. Search and rescue services in other major Canadian ports, such as Victoria, Halifax and Montreal, are provided by a combination of responders that, for the most part, do not include Coast Guard lifeboats. The Kitsilano station is also only 17 nautical miles away from the Sea Island hovercraft station. No two other Coast Guard lifeboat stations are located so closely together. Typically, the radius of coverage is at least 50 nautical miles.
Although it cannot be denied that there is a high volume of traffic in the area and a high number of search and rescue incidents, many of these incidents are humanitarian and, therefore, outside of the Coast Guard's primary service mandate; by that I mean that they sometimes run out of gas, they find themselves at low tide or on a sand bar or those kinds of things.
The Canadian Coast Guard carefully considers the available response resources in a given area and their combined capacity and capability to meet local search and rescue needs. With respect to Kitsilano, there are five Coast Guard auxiliary units in the area, as well as local partners and numerous vessels of opportunity. These are valuable resources that contribute to the search and rescue system in the area.
The Kitsilano station responded to approximately 200 maritime search and rescue incidents in 2010. Of these, approximately 75% were non-distress and 25% were distress. It is true that, due to its 365 days a year operations, the Kitsilano station has one of the highest cumulative workloads among lifeboat stations in Canada. However, the intensity of its workload is not significantly different from other search and rescue stations.
When only comparing search and rescue incidents occurring during peak summer months there are inshore rescue boat stations in the country with higher workloads than Kitsilano. For example, the Oka inshore rescue boat station in Quebec responded to over 130 search and rescue incidents in 2010, which is significantly higher than the Kitsilano caseload during the same months, which was approximately 75.
In addition, Kitsilano has traditionally been used as the primary responder to search and rescue cases in the Vancouver area but there are multiple resources in the area. A better utilization of search and rescue partners will lead to a more even distribution of workload.
It should be noted that the province of British Columbia has the highest number of federally funded search and rescue resources in Canada with 12 Coast Guard search and rescue stations, 3 inshore rescue boat stations, 61 Coast Guard auxiliary units and 2 offshore search and rescue vessels. It has been determined that the best mix of resources to provide search and rescue response in the Vancouver area include the addition of an inshore rescue boat in Vancouver harbour, the Coast Guard's hovercraft at Sea Island, the strengthening of the Coast Guard auxiliary presence, local emergency responders and, as always, vessels of opportunity.
I would like to address the benefits of some of these Coast Guard resources in more detail, starting with the addition of an inshore rescue boat in the Vancouver harbour. This seems to be a detail often excluded from conversations surrounding the closure of Kitsilano.
It has been determined that the addition of an inshore rescue boat in Vancouver harbour, operating during the peak summer months from the May long weekend to the September long weekend, would, if the sole responder, though that is highly unlikely, be able to cover 41% of Kitsilano's total yearly workload. The inshore rescue boat station will be strategically located in Vancouver harbour aiding with response to mariners in distress in this high traffic area during busy summer months.
The Sea Island hovercraft will be another resource at the disposal of search and rescue. There have been concerns voiced about whether Sea Island's hovercraft will be available for search and rescue taskings in the Vancouver area due to its use performing aids to navigation functions. I can assure the House that the availability of primary search and rescue assets to perform search and rescue missions will not be affected by aids to navigation duties.
In the last five years, the hovercraft at Sea Island has spent less than one day a month performing aids to navigation duties and search and rescue will always have the priority.
Over the coming months, the Canadian Coast Guard will be contracting out more of its buoy work, allowing search and rescue resources, including the hovercraft, to focus more on safety missions.
The two hovercrafts at Sea Island are the most capable search and rescue hovercrafts in the world. The hovercraft provides a large, stable platform that offers high speeds, up to 35 to 40 knots, and endurance. The hovercraft is capable of operating safely and effectively and it can be under way within three to five minutes of receiving a search and rescue call.
The new hovercraft currently under construction in the United Kingdom to replace the Penac will be equipped with an updated system and is scheduled for delivery in autumn 2013. The Sea Island hovercrafts have capacity to take on additional taskings in the greater Vancouver area.
Another important asset to the Canadian Coast Guard search and rescue system is its dedicated partners from the auxiliary. I know the members opposite demean the auxiliary, but I will give them some facts. I will reiterate that the search and rescue system relies on this network of resources to save lives and the Coast Guard auxiliary makes a significant contribution to search and rescue each day. Canadians ought to be thanking it for the good work that it does.
The Canadian Coast Guard manages $4.9 million in contribution funds to the Coast Guard auxiliaries to support federal search and rescue activities and initiatives. These dedicated volunteers include professional fishers and other experienced boaters who share a common goal and desire to save lives. On average, Coast Guard auxiliary nationally responds to 25% of all maritime search and rescue incidents. Specifically, Coast Guard auxiliary Pacific, now known as Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue, responds to about 400 incidents a year and its units are the sole responder to 280 incidents annually. The Pacific auxiliary has the highest membership in Canada with 1,115 members.
Auxiliary members in the Pacific region undergo extensive certification and training prior to becoming a trainee crew member on a search and rescue mission, including training in an advanced rescue vessel simulator. They must successfully complete additional testing and at-sea training prior to becoming a full crew member and are encouraged to continue completing higher levels of certification. The Pacific auxiliary has a fast reaction time averaging 19 minutes.
There are five 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week auxiliary stations serving the Vancouver area, two of which, Howe Sound and Indian Arm, are newly equipped with 37-foot search and rescue vessels capable of withstanding 50 knot winds, 5 metre seas and are rollover tested. The Delta and Crescent Beach auxiliary stations will be putting new vessels into service this fall and Richmond station is equipped with three vessels, including a new 30-foot cabin vessel. Collectively, these five auxiliary units responded to 112 maritime search and rescue incidents in 2010. Of these, 32 were distress incidents and 80 were non-distress incidents.
In order to ensure a smooth transition of safety services in the Vancouver harbour, discussion with our municipal and local partners have begun, as well as an increase in additional funding to the Pacific auxiliary. When all measures are put in place and the Coast Guard determines that safe services can be assured, the Kitsilano station will be closed. This is currently scheduled to be around the spring of 2013. It is important to understand that no one resource will be expected to undertake the entire caseload of Kitsilano, rather, many partners will work collectively to maintain the high level of service currently provided.
I want to point out that a similar mix of resources is used in other major ports. For example, Victoria harbour, which is another very busy harbour, utilizes as part of its search and rescue team one docked fast rescue craft, one Coast Guard auxiliary unit, a Pacific coast pilot vessel, the Victoria police and fire department vessels and, finally, the RCMP border integrity unit, but no Coast Guard station nearby.
In the Victoria area over a five year period from 2006 to 2010, the Coast Guard auxiliary units responded to 66% of the cases while the Coast Guard search and rescue vessels responded to only 20% of the cases.
A different mix of resources proves effective in Halifax harbour with one large Coast Guard vessel, a small DFO science vessel, a Coast Guard fast rescue craft, an inshore rescue boat during the summer months of May to September, fire and police vessels, pilot boats, Halifax Port Corporation work boats and other vessels of opportunity.
Montreal harbour is equipped with one inshore rescue boat from June till September, seven Coast Guard auxiliary units and two Montreal Fire Department fast rescue crafts. There are three other municipal fire department fast rescue crafts outside of the harbour limits that could also respond if necessary.
The point I am making is that each region, port or harbour utilizes a different mix of resources for their search and rescue needs and yet each is effective. Thus, the best mix of resources for Vancouver harbour has been identified.
The Canadian Coast Guard is a national and international leader in maritime safety and the Coast Guard search and rescue program is among the best in the world. As such, the Coast Guard continually strives to provide outstanding maritime services to Canadians and improve upon service delivery whenever possible.
Finally, the Canadian Coast Guard remains committed to ensuring maritime safety in the Vancouver area, as well as in the rest of Canada. We recognize the critical importance of these safety services and I can assure members that the Coast Guard's number one priority remains safety.