Volunteers can't replace coast guard: rescuers
The volunteer rescuers Ottawa is relying on to pick up some of the slack after the closure of the Kitsilano Coast Guard base doubt they can provide the same level of safety.
Randy Strandt of the newly christened Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue says they expect to be responding to more calls, but acknowledges they simply can't respond as quickly as coast guard staff in emergencies.
"Certainly, we will do what we can. We'll see an increased call volume and we'll respond to that, but I don't think we can replace the coast guard," Strandt said.
Relying more on volunteer services is one part of the way the coast guard planned to manage without the Kitsilano base, which is expected to close by next spring because of federal budget cuts.
Rescuers say the main problem is response times. Right now, the coast guard can respond to any emergency in English Bay, near First Narrows, and as far east as the Seabus line within about 10 minutes.
But it takes volunteers 15 minutes just to get from their homes to the dock, where they will leave from one of the five stations in the Vancouver area. The two stations on the North Shore – Deep Cove and Horseshoe Bay – together respond to 70 calls a year, Strandt said.
The Kitsilano Coast Guard base responds to about 300 calls a year. The plan is to absorb it into another base on Sea Island, about 17 kilometres away.
"The additional response time will be 25 minutes. If someone is having a heart attack or hypothermia in the water, that could be life or death," said Mike Cotter, General Manager of the Kitsilano Sailing Centre.
"People are going to die," Cotter said.
Heritage Minister James Moore said his department had consulted widely in order to minimize the impact of the cuts.
"We're not going to do anything that jeopardizes public safety, this is not about finding small cuts that jeopardize public safety," Moore said Friday.
Strandt said the coast guard and the RCM-SAR work closely together. Until today, the RCM-SAR was known as the Canadian Coast Guard Auxiliary.
But Strandt said he found out about the Kits closure the same way that many others did – on the news.
He said it's not clear how his organization will be asked to step up.
"We're looking forward to working with the coast guard on that to see what we can do," he said.
New name for marine rescuers
At Horseshoe Bay Saturday, the RCM-SAR staged a dramatic rescue to show off a new jet boat, a new station and a new name designed to increase the profile of the volunteer units.
Volunteers dedicated a brand new rescue vessel, the Craig Rea Spirit, which will replace an aging vessel in the Horseshoe Bay unit of the provincewide organization, which has 46 units and covers more than 27,000 square kilometers of coastline.
The name "Royal" was added after a request to Queen Elizabeth in February, 2012. It's designed to improve fundraising efforts, Strandt said.