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Death raises questions about closing of Coast Guard base

The Kitsilano Coast Guard station, upper right, was closed permanently on February 19, 2013.


The death of a crew member who waited half an hour for paramedics after suffering a heart attack on a freighter near Stanley Park is raising questions about the federal government's decision to close the Kitsilano Coast Guard base in February.

"We can't ever know what would have happened in this tragic situation, but we do know that we probably could have saved 15 minutes if the station was still open," said Bill Tieleman, spokesman for the Union of Canadian Transportation Employees.

According to a statement issued by spokesman Dan Bate, the Coast Guard arrived on the scene within 20 minutes of the call and immediately initiated first aid. "It is inappropriate to speculate on alternate outcomes of this incident," he said.

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The Kitsilano station was suddenly closed in February after the federal government cut funding, sparking outrage in the community. As the busiest station in Canada, it typically responded to about 350 calls a year.

After an emergency call was placed from English Bay near Ferguson Point just after 4 p.m. on Thursday, a Coast Guard hovercraft was dispatched from Richmond, reaching the freighter 20 minutes later. Meanwhile, paramedics waited at the former Kitsilano Coast Guard dock to be picked up by a police boat. They reached the freighter about half an hour after the initial call was placed. The site of the emergency was about 12 minutes from the Kitsilano base.

The hovercraft then returned to the old Coast Guard station to drop off the medical team.

"It's just very ironic that everything happened in the shadow of the closed Kitsilano Coast Guard base," said Mr. Tieleman. "You can't help but sit there and think that this is crazy. This base should be open.

"We said from the beginning that there's going to be tragic circumstances if you close the Kitsilano Coast Guard station, and unfortunately that seems to be coming true," he said.

Councillor Kerry Jang said he is very concerned about the increased response time. "This is a clear example of how paramedics could not get to the individual in time because they had to actually wait for the police boat," he said.

"Whether you're a fisherman or recreational boater, or – as we see in this case – a major commercial freighter, which is the lifeblood of our economy, the federal government has not provided adequate service," Mr. Jang said. "Everything we feared has come to pass."

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It shows poor planning on behalf of the federal government, he said. "The paramedics have lost their ride thanks to the base closure, and they were just lucky the police boat was available."

However, calling for assistance from available boats within the vicinity is normal, said Wade Pierlot, deputy fire chief. "It's a common practice in the marine community all over the world," Mr. Pierlot said. "Even when the former Coast Guard station was open, it might have been at another call, so they always look for an immediate resource to go and assist."

When an emergency call is received, a rescue co-ordination centre searches the water for available vessels, he said. According to marine law, boats must respond to Coast Guard requests for assistance. Mr. Pierlot said Vancouver Fire and Rescue's marine fire boat might be getting used more often in the future, and the Coast Guard can also ask the Royal Canadian Marine Search and Rescue for help.

"[Paramedics] were always getting picked up before by somebody," Mr. Pierlot said. "But now what's changed is who that might be. And less often it will be the Coast Guard, and more often it will be a vessel of opportunity."

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