Thunder Bay Coast Guard radio station's closure raises concerns
3/2 - Thunder Bay, Ont. – A federal plan to close Thunder Bay's Coast Guard radio station and monitor Lake Superior waters out of Sarnia is raising concerns among mariners and volunteer rescuers.
The Thunder Bay Coast Guard marine communications and traffic centre, which keeps a listening watch over the Canadian waters of Lake Superior, is one of 10 centres across the country slated to be closed in what Fisheries and Oceans Canada says is a move to adopt new technology. The cuts will reduce the number of stations nationwide from 22 down to 12 and the union representing radio operators in Thunder Bay says staffing is not expected to increase in Sarnia to handle the extra load.
Seann O'Donoughue, a freighter captain and outgoing president of the International Shipmasters Association, said the group is concerned by the Thunder Bay station's closure, despite technological improvements touted by the government.
Busy summer boating weekends are of particular concern to O'Donoughue, who worries the airwaves will be “clogged up,” with emergency traffic from both recreational and commercial traffic.
“We can't stop the closing of the Thunder Bay Coast Guard radio station – but I did want it known that the Shipmasters are concerned about cutting back staffing,” said O'Donoughue, captain of the Algoma Spirit, a 222-metre bulk carrier.
Dennis O'Reilly, who leads a team of 10 Coast Guard Auxiliary volunteers through Sault Search and Rescue, said he also has concerns about the move to Sarnia. He said he doesn't know yet how the move will play out, but he said there is potential for issues if staffing isn't increased in Sarnia. He said the prospect of losing local knowledge is also of concern.
“We have a history with the Coast Guard out of Thunder Bay,” said O'Reilly, whose team covers the Canadian coastline from Marathon to Iron Bridge.
Sault Ste. Marie MP Bryan Hayes said the government isn't out to reduce safety. He said the technology driving the consolidation is expected to allow “the same level of service,” but he said it is “premature,” to say that staffing levels won't also be increased in Sarnia. He said that hasn't been determined yet.
“Ultimately, if they do find it's not manageable, well of course it's going to be resourced accordingly,” said Hayes. “We all care about the health and safety of our mariners and that's what this is all about.”
The union that represents radio workers in Thunder Bay doesn't buy the claim that new monitoring stations will reduce the workload on radio operators, whose job it is to listen to VHF radio channel 16 for distress calls, among other things.
Marcie Lavoie, shop steward for CAW Local 2182, said she has yet to hear about any staffing increase planned for Sarnia. She said some people have filled open positions there, but no transfers have been offered.
“It's our job to be able to kind of filter out all of the things that don't require our attention and listen for that faint call that does require our attention,” said Lavoie, who also works at the station. “In the noisy summertime environment it's sometimes very challenging to pick up that call.”
Right now, the Thunder Bay station is equipped with three radio consoles and Sarnia with two, said Lavoie. To go down to two people with an increased area is “a very dangerous proposition,” she said.
Lavoie says the Sarnia station will monitor traffic over a “massive area,” including Lake Superior, the St. Marys River, the North Channel, Lake Huron, Georgian Bay, the St. Clair River, Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and half of Lake Erie once Thunder Bay closes.
Lavoie said that's too much. Last year, she and her husband toured the affected areas drumming up support for a petition to save the Thunder Bay station and hope the boating community will speak out before the station closes at the end of March 2014.