Consult before closing down SAR dive crew

27 May 2017

Canada west coast is a complex marine environment with many risks. In the Salish Sea alone there are: 25,000 small vessels; 3000 passenger cruise ships; the Vancouver airport surrounded by shallow waters and mud flats; floatplanes operating daily; 22 million passengers traveling on BC Ferries; commercial and sport fishing; and a booming ecotourism environment, to name a few.

With all of this marine activity, it is easy to see why the Canadian Coast Guard's (CCG) decision to cancel its only rescue diving program came as a shock to the public, Search and Rescue (SAR ) professionals (paid and unpaid), and mariners.

SAR is a team sport. The Minister of National Defence is the lead, and Rear-Admiral Art MacDonald is the Victoria Search and Rescue Region (SRR) Commander responsible for SAR in this region, including both aviation and marine (Rear-Admiral John Newton does the same in the Halifax SRR), and the CCG provides a primary marine capability. SAR resources are tasked by the Victoria Joint Rescue Coordination Centre (JRCC) who do an amazing job deploying SAR resources on a daily basis.

The dive rescue capability is a critical component to Canada's SAR response, and such a decision should not be made without full consultation with Defence Minister Harjiit Sajjan to ensure alternate options are immediately available to take over,

There is a clear need for analysis on the dive rescue requirement from all who are responsible for this life-saving duty: the SAR Commander, CCG and/or the National SAR Secretariat. The NSS was set up in 1982 to who look at policy issues surrounding SAR. It has been strangely quiet and since its move from the Department of National Defence to Public Safety has gone totally silent. This is the type of analysis the NSS was created to address and review.

Lives depend upon this dive rescue capability and this needs to be heard.

Questions surround this baffling and potentially life-threatening decision. Was the SAR Commander consulted? Who signed off that decision?

The Coast Guard made a similar move with the abrupt closure of Vancouver's  Kitsilano Coast Guard Base which was righted and reopened by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He toured the facility with Prince William last fall and met various SAR groups including CCG rescue divers.

SAR is more than an accounting exercise. Let hope that CCG will reconsider the decision and put in place a transparent decision-making process that includes consultations with the public and other SAR providers before any final decision is made. It is time for a truth to power discussion on this very important issue so "others may live".

Joe Spears was outside legal counsel to Transport Canada Marine Safety during the BC Ferries Queen of Oak Bay grounding in Horseshoe Bay in 2005. He worked with RCMP Dive team, and Cormorant C-148 deployed RCAF Diving SARTechs and CCG Rescue divers to secure both the crime scene respond to the SAR incident and investigate the marine casualty with the Transportation Safety Board. He is a former Fisheries research scuba diver.