I call the meeting to order.
Committee members, colleagues, guests, thank you for coming. We are now at meeting number six, on March 10, of the Standing Committee on Fisheries and Oceans, pursuant to Standing Order 108(2), our study of the closure of the Comox MCTS station.
We have two hours to listen to witnesses. Our first hour is taken up with the department, and in particular with the Canadian Coast Guard.
From the Canadian Coast Guard, we have Gregory Lick, director general of operations; Roger Girouard, assistant commissioner; and Sam Ryan, director general of integrated technical services.
The way we normally do this is that each witness is entitled to 10 minutes for a presentation, followed by a round of questioning that we determined some time ago.
Will there be just one of you speaking, or would all three like to speak?
Thank you, Mr. Chair. I'll be keeping my opening remarks very brief to allow you sufficient time to ask as many questions as you feel are necessary.
We've provided you with a PowerPoint presentation today, but I think you'd rather just listen to us. However, we may point to a few of those slides for reference during either our questioning or during opening remarks.
Nationally, the Coast Guard's marine communications and traffic services centres play a pivotal role in saving lives, protecting our waters, and ensuring the safe and efficient movement of vessels for the smooth functioning of Canada's maritime economy. I would like to spend a few moments speaking to you on what I know are the vital links in the MCTS system that ensure the safety of Canadian mariners and the waters that they ply, namely the communications equipment and infrastructure, together with our professional MCTS officers manning that equipment 24/7.
On the technology side, navigation and communications technologies have advanced significantly in the last decade. This evolution is not new for us. Look how quickly smart phones have become part of our daily lives. In the early 2000s, while much of the Coast Guard's MCTS equipment remained functional, it was quickly becoming antiquated and increasingly difficult to maintain. As such, in 2007, the Coast Guard made the decision to make significant investments to modernize its MCTS communications and data systems to bring our centres into the 21st century.
The implementation of this new technology provided us the opportunity to find efficiencies in our program delivery by reducing the number of MCTS centres from 22 to 12 without changes in the services to mariners. From day one, this project has been rooted in the principles that there would be no change in existing MCTS coverage and services and no disruption to those services as we transition to the new systems.
I would now like to dispel a number of myths that have appeared over the time of this project.
First, there is the myth of less coverage. I can confirm absolutely that coverage areas will remain exactly the same and that the number of radio towers and radar installations will not change.
Myth two has to do with insurmountable technical problems. Yes, we've seen some technical issues in the new systems, but this is not unexpected in a large project like this. Rigorous testing with our contractor and the MCTS officers has allowed us to find solutions to these issues as they have appeared. I and my colleagues have heard and seen these issues, and I can say with confidence that we have seen the successful implementation of solutions.
I can provide you with a quick example. We attended Prince Rupert MCTS last fall and actually heard the poor quality of the text-to-speech translation of the marine weather broadcast. Time spent by the contractor and Prince Rupert's officers to have the dictionary and translator functioning has produced a clear broadcast, one that will allow more time for the centre's officers to spend on distress and vessel traffic duties.
I am pleased to say that the Coast Guard has already successfully consolidated nine MCTS centres and transferred their operations to newly modernized state-of-the-art centres in strategic locations across the country. The consolidation of MCTS Comox into Victoria represents the final element in the Coast Guard's consolidation efforts and is currently on track for spring 2016.
Let's go to myth three, which is line of sight. The proximity of our centres to the coastlines they serve is not the principal factor for their location. The centres can literally be located anywhere in the country, given that our state-of-the-art equipment requires no reliance on line-of-sight monitoring. This is a good thing, since a line-of-sight requirement would significantly limit our ability to provide services at night and in heavy fog, which is common in coastal communities.
Let's move to our officers. There is a misconception that because of consolidation, some of our MCTS officers no longer have the local knowledge required to fulfill their duties.
This is simply untrue. Our officers represent the finest in their field. They complete a rigorous training and certification program at the Canadian Coast Guard College and study their geographical area of responsibility with intensive on-the-job training. Then they are fully checked out before assuming their responsibility for a particular area. To ensure the high levels of service that Canadians have learned to expect from the Coast Guard, we ensure that staffing levels and workload at the new centres are appropriate for the area they cover.
In addition, we have also built in surge capacity, something that the previous centres did not all have.
Now specifically on the issue of the closure of MCTS Comox, which is why we are here today, I can say with certainty that the consolidation of this centre is on track. We will be ready to ensure a seamless transition of operations into Victoria.
MCTS Victoria has been fully modernized and we are continuing to work closely with the contractor to ensure that the centre is ready to accept the transfer, building on the lessons learned that we had from the other nine centres that we've already consolidated. The consolidation of MCTS Comox represents a key step in this long-standing project. We are modernizing and replacing what we had before: 30-year technology. Any delays in proceeding with the consolidation of MCTS Comox in the spring of this year would result in increased costs to Canadians and increased risks associated with the continued use of antiquated equipment there, which is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain.
As such, I and my colleagues here today, who are accountable for the success of this project, both at a regional level and a national technical level, and I at a national program level, are confident that we have not identified any operational or technical reasons that would merit a delay in proceeding with this plan.
Thank you. We'd be happy to take any questions you have.
I'll answer that question from the national perspective in terms of the normal mitigating measures we put in place. I'll ask Mr. Girouard to address the regional perspective from the western region and then any technical aspects to the technology and how we deal with it in terms of technicians.
Outages do occur. It is a technology. We do have a country in which we have environmental effects. Weather, wind—those things do affect the towers periodically. We do have a reliance on certain telcos that provide the services on the links. We do have microwave links, as Mr. Ryan mentioned, that are affected sometimes by wind and weather, as well as by lightning and other atmospheric events.
An outage is relatively uncommon, in our minds, or certainly a major outage is. Most of our outages are very short, and during the outage time period we do have protocols in place to mitigate the problems that occur. We do have our own Coast Guard vessels out there, who now maintain a more diligent listening watch to radio transmissions, particularly distress radio transmissions. We do have SAR stations out there that maintain the same more rigorous listening watch when that happens. We also send out what we call a notice to shipping, which goes out to mariners to make sure they know there is an outage and they should maintain a more diligent listening watch. What we're concentrating on at that point is really distress communications, so we make sure we hear all of those.
In addition, in certain areas of the country we have co-operative vessel traffic services with the United States. They can take over some of our responsibilities in those particular areas if we do have an outage, just as we will do for them.
That answers the particular part of the question with respect to some of the national mitigating measures we will put in place for any type of outage.
I'll ask Mr. Girouard to talk about the western region perspective with respect to that question.
Perhaps I should begin with some anecdotes of the kinds of outages we've had in the last year. As Mr. Lick said, they range across a full spectrum, from lightning strikes to equipment failure not related to the modernization; as an example, a diesel that's providing electricity to a remote site may fail.
A number of outages have been related to third party carriers. In B.C. in particular, we are not landline rich; we're very dependent on third party carriers, in some instances, to transfer signals from nodes to nodes. We've had a number of outages related to those issues.
Last year we had one particularly notorious outage just as we transferred from Vancouver. That was related to moving old Vancouver gear to Victoria. You shouldn't shake an old analog piece of gear, because it will fail on you. It was not related to the modern gear but to modernization. That one lasted probably two hours.
In terms of the pure modernization, we have had some software interface issues. We did have a couple of outages that were caused when the contractor did updates without letting us know, and that locked up a system. Once we knew what it was, it was a five-minute fix. We've changed that protocol.
In terms of the modern gear, I've seen very little of it involved in a significant outage. Some of the site-to-node interfaces have had some glitches, but we've learned about the system and we've learned how to do rapid response in a way that's taken us from a 20-minute outage down to one or two minutes. The key for us is that if we do have an outage, we get the word out and put up a system to support the airspace. We hear on channel 16 the other mariners supporting us.
Right now, I believe we're building a more robust system as a result of what we're putting in.
Good afternoon, Mr. Chair, and members of the committee. Thank you for inviting me to participate in this study.
I would like to provide you with a bit of my background. I started as an officer with vessel traffic services in Vancouver in 1980 when it was separate from Coast Guard radio. I went through the amalgamation of vessel traffic services and Coast Guard radio in 1995 when MCTS was created, combining both disciplines.
During the amalgamation I took a three-year assignment as an instructor at the Coast Guard College in Sydney from 1997 to 2000. After my assignment I transferred to the office of boating safety in Dartmouth up until 2005, when I returned to the west coast as the officer in charge, or OIC, of Tofino MCTS, which was consolidated with Prince Rupert in April 2015. I then briefly worked at Vancouver MCTS as OIC, assisting in its consolidation with Victoria in May of 2015. Currently I am the OIC of Comox MCTS.
During my time with the public service I have definitely become accustomed to change, but I was not prepared for the announcement that came in 2012 that involved the consolidation of MCTS centres, resulting in the western region going down from five centres to two centres.
Over the last 15 years there have been many studies of MCTS: workload studies, least-cost analyses, change initiatives, and strategic reviews. MCTS has been discussed several times during previous parliamentary sessions of this committee. I would like to refer to statements made on October 9, 2003, by Mr. Martin Grégoire, who was the union president at the time.
Mr. Grégoire stated:
||We believe there is a limit to the number of frequencies and noise that a human being can listen to. We believe there is a limit to the knowledge an employee may have of an extended geographical area. We believe there is a limit to the workload that a single employee can handle at any given time. We believe local presence and knowledge is important in order to provide adequate services, and we believe a reduced number of centres increases the risk of losing all communications over an extended geographical area, as opposed to a limited and smaller geographical area with many smaller centres, when facing major events like hurricanes, floods, ice storms, fires, or earthquakes.
These statements are still valid today, and we can add tsunamis to the list of major events.
The slides that I am about to show you are just a few of the many statistics that have been gathered from the various studies. The first couple of slides I will go over quite quickly because there are a lot of numbers.
The next one is a graphical representation, but it definitely shows that the workload of Pacific region, which is now western region, is double the other four regions that have been combined now to central and Arctic region, and Atlantic region. These are all using the statistics compiled from our vessel traffic management information system between 2011 and 2014.
The next two slides display the same vessel traffic movement statistics for 2013 and 2014, and show that 50% of the vessel movements occur in western region. This slide not only shows national 2015 statistics but breaks down western region into the traffic positions of the three remaining centres in western region after Tofino's area moved to Prince Rupert and Vancouver harbour moved to Victoria.
In the bottom pie chart are the four busiest positions: blue, which is the south area; red, which is Bowen; green, which is the harbour; and purple, which is Comox. That all makes up 83% of vessel movements in western region. These would be the four positions that are going to be put together in Victoria.
One of the reasons the old Vancouver VTS was split up was that it was determined that the combined workload for the entire area would have been excessive for one centre after amalgamation with Coast Guard radio. The checkout rate, or success rate, for new officers training in Vancouver VTS was just above 50%, due to the complexity of this centre. Since the split of Vancouver traffic into what was Victoria, Vancouver, and Comox, the checkout rate rose considerably.
The next three slides are taken from the maritime search and rescue annual reports. Again, they are showing the high volume of incidents handled from Pacific or western region, with Pacific being on the left and the other four regions that have combined following that.
I want to draw your attention to this map. This shows the location of most of the incidents in western or Pacific region. As the high density of dots indicate, this is all of Comox's area right now. This was Vancouver's. This is all Victoria's area. Again, the highest concentration, a majority of the events, are all occurring in the three centres that are scheduled to be consolidated.
Now let's look at post-consolidation staffing levels. Victoria and Prince Rupert will be handling over 50% of the traffic movements and a majority of the maritime incidents, yet, after consolidation, they're expected to handle this workload with only two centres.
This disparity continues on with funding as well. This was taken from the Canadian Coast Guard integrated business and human resource plan of the total allocation of funding for 2014-15. This is still with Comox operating prior to consolidation. Western region, with a three-centre configuration, still delivers an efficient, cost-effective service to the maritime stakeholders and is handling a majority of the workload.
Now I'm going to switch to a program that will demonstrate the sites. The green circles represent all our remote sites. There have been a lot of questions about our transmitter towers and receivers. These are all the sites that send and receive data from our communications centres.
What are some of the advantages to keeping Comox open? We have a great opportunity to minimize the risks by keeping Comox MCTS open and redistributing the workload among the three centres.
During evidence heard by this committee—and it was restated here—a number of the issues of outages were linked to third party providers. Mr. Pelletier stated on February 23 that we rely on third party providers to bring the signal from a tower to the other more centralized centres. If I look at the majority of outages, it is due to the third parties.
There has been some discussion today about the cost of keeping Comox open, the cost of modernizing Comox, because, yes, the equipment we're using is outdated, but all the new communications equipment is installed at Comox centre. That is where it is sitting right now. It is already installed at each of the remote sites that are on that chart. The only portion of the modernization that is not in Comox right now is the consoles and the equipment that is sitting in Victoria.
Those two extra operating positions in Victoria could just as easily be installed in Comox. That is where the equipment resides. That is where it switches over to the third party provider and that data is sent from Comox down to Victoria, the same way the data that came to MCTS Tofino and Ucluelet is transmitted all the way from Ucluelet via a third party provider up to Prince Rupert.
Third party providers are used to carry all the digitized data—the voice, the AIS, and the radar—that's collected at Amphitrite Point, which is the former Tofino MCTS site, and send it all the way to Prince Rupert. The U.S. Coast Guard vessel traffic service at Seattle was extremely concerned with this risk, as it relies heavily on the ability of Tofino MCTS, now Prince Rupert, to manage the approaches to the Strait of Juan de Fuca as part of the co-operative vessel traffic services agreement.
Their concern was evident when they proposed a plan and purchased equipment, which is at the Tofino MCTS site, to install a microwave link that would carry the radar and communications data to the VTS operation in Seattle in the event the Prince Rupert MCTS lost the capability of providing VTS services in this area. This equipment has not yet been installed. This data could easily have been routed to Comox via microwave links to minimize third party networks and eliminate the risk of sending this data to Prince Rupert.
With respect to costs—
I'd like to thank you for inviting me to speak to you today.
I'm here because the Coast Guard's marine communications officers believe that the Coast Guard is acting recklessly to close traffic and communication centres, putting our coasts and the people who live, work, and play in these waterways in danger.
Before I get into more detail, I want to briefly discuss my qualifications.
I grew up in Vancouver and have lived on the west coast for over 35 years. I spent 12 years in the Canadian Armed Forces as an electronics technician, which gave me the opportunity to travel across the country. After a training accident, I was released from the armed forces in 1992 and joined the Canadian Coast Guard as a marine traffic regulator in Vancouver. I transferred to Comox in 1997. Since consolidation was announced in 2012, I have worked in the Vancouver MCTS until it closed, on assignment there, and in the Victoria MCTS as well, because of short-staffing. While working in Victoria MCTS, I requalified to work in all the vessel traffic and safety positions at that centre.
When I started working for the Coast Guard in Vancouver in 1992, vessel traffic services and Coast Guard radio were separate but complementary. VTS is much like air traffic control for ships, and the main function of Coast Guard radio is to act like a 911 radio service for mariners.
During the 1990s, something very important happened to this country's Coast Guard that I want you to reflect on. My union recognized that new technology, such as cellphones and satellite communications, would soon make some of the work they did and the offices they performed redundant. The union presented the Coast Guard with a proposal to merge Coast Guard radio and vessel traffic services. The merger of these two services would create greater efficiencies by combining operations and would allow a reduction in staffing through attrition rather than layoffs. The savings from this merger would be about $14.5 million a year.
After consultation with stakeholders and a risk assessment were completed, the Coast Guard agreed. Between 1995 and 1999, 30 Coast Guard radio stations and 14 vessel traffic services centres were closed or merged together to form 22 marine communications and traffic services across the country.
During the reorganization, the technology was available at that time to combine Vancouver traffic, Vancouver radio, and Comox radio into one centre, but this was not done for important operational reasons.
The first was emergency backup. Due to the locations of the three centres, if any one centre lost communications, the other two would be able to cover the gap, thus helping to ensure the safety of mariners travelling in this area. The workload and vessel traffic complexity that would have resulted was too great for one centre.
Next was training. It could take up to two years to train an employee to work in such a large and complex centre. It was felt that breaking the centre up would result in a higher retention rate because trainees would be given an opportunity to be more successful. Also, the fact was that the building that housed Comox Coast Guard radio had just been opened in 1993 and was designed to allow for expansion without having to do any major construction.
As a result, Vancouver traffic was split up, with one part moved to Comox in 1996. In 1998 and 1999, the remaining part was split into Vancouver and Victoria. In other words, marine communications officers have not just consented but have initiated policy discussions about consolidation of bases. What's happened over the last few years is very different, and we cannot sign off on the latest round of closures for public safety reasons.
One of these reasons is disaster management. As previously mentioned, the building housing the Comox MCTS centre was opened in 1993. Comox MCTS is the only Coast Guard communications centre in B.C. that is not located in a tsunami zone and is built to earthquake standards. The building is located approximately 100 feet above sea level on Cape Lazo, with a commanding view of the northern Strait of Georgia. All vessel traffic transiting the inside passage must pass by this point. If Comox is allowed to close, our west coast communications network could be paralyzed in the event of a tsunami event.
Beyond natural disaster, the closure of Coast Guard centres has not adequately considered officer workload and expertise. The Coast Guard has closed nine of the 22 centres in Canada. The decision was made without consulting industry, mariners, the public, or the union.
In B.C., three of the five centres were scheduled to close. The Tofino MCTS centre was closed and the work moved to Prince Rupert in April of 2015, without any of the previously qualified and trained officers moving. Vancouver MCTS was closed in May of 2015 and the work was moved to Victoria. Only five of the 11 officers actually moved.
The Comox MCTS centre is scheduled to close in May, and the work will also be moved to Victoria. Eleven officers are required to move with the work; six to eight officers may actually move. This will increase the staffing shortage already felt in Victoria even further and result in overtime costs that could reach $2.2 million per year. These shortages have resulted in occasions where members have worked for 30 days in a row or more.
As a result, the first, second, and fourth-busiest MCTS centres in the country are to be combined into one centre in Victoria that will be carrying over 40% of the MCTS workload of the entire country.
I'd like to conclude by summarizing my members' concerns and policy recommendations.
On tsunami alerting, Comox MCTS is the Coast Guard's tsunami alerting centre and is the only Coast Guard communication centre on the west coast that is not in a tsunami zone. With regard to emergency backup, keeping Comox MCTS open helps to ensure that radio coverage of the busy lower Strait of Georgia and the approaches to Vancouver harbour are maintained in case of a central outage.
On costs, the costs associated with moving Comox MCTS to Victoria—up to $1 million for relocation, $2.2 million a year for overtime due to short-staffing, and the cost to train new staff—far outweigh the cost of keeping it open, which would be between $400,000 and $500,000 a year.
As for staffing, keeping Comox MCTS open helps to ensure that the shortage of staff at Victoria MCTS is not made worse by the departure of experienced staff when Comox closes. The Coast Guard regional management in B.C. was so concerned about this that they asked Coast Guard management in Ottawa to delay the closure until at least October of this year, and to possibly keep the centre open.
With regard to workload, relocating Comox MCTS to Victoria would set up a scenario in which over 40% of the MCTS workload in Canada would be handled from one location.
With regard to local knowledge, local knowledge is very important because local people often use local names for places. For instance, in the Comox vessel traffic zone, there are two places called Twin Islands, two places called God's Pocket, and two places called Hole-in-the-Wall. Over half of the staff will not be relocating if Comox MCTS closes, and this will result in the loss of knowledge that cannot be easily replaced.
On technical problems, there are concerns that relocating Comox MCTS could result in the same echo problems that have plagued other MCTS centres since they were modernized.
As for marine safety, in his mandate letter the minister was asked to improve marine safety. How does closing the only MCTS centre in B.C. that is not in a tsunami zone improve marine safety?
The government's decision to reopen the Kitsilano Coast Guard base has sent a strong signal to British Columbians that public safety, the protection of property, and the integrity of the environment are worth protecting. The federal government should apply these principles to the important work of the Coast Guard's west coast marine traffic safety monitoring and cancel the closure of the Comox MCTS centre.
A moment ago I briefly referred to technical problems, specifically the problems with the communications control system, or CCS, that is currently being used in many of the communications centres. It's the new technology. This technology has been plagued with issues since its implementation, which started in 2012. The problems with CCS are systemic.
To give you a better understanding, I brought along a recording of a Coast Guard transmission, which was obtained through freedom of information. The audio exchange originates from a marine traffic and communications service centre in Iqaluit, which was the first centre to be modernized. It clearly demonstrates that at times Coast Guard transmissions are unintelligible.
I've been in the government service for 35 years now, between the military and the Coast Guard, so I definitely understand your question.
If you look at the sites Mr. Gross had on his chart, you can see all the little radio sites. A lot of those used to be manned sites, and there were people there. Over the years the Coast Guard has consolidated in different places. Alert Bay used to be a radio site, and that was moved to Comox a number of years ago.
With redundancy we're talking about a large area with very low levels of radio coverage. Once you get north of some areas, there isn't even cellphone coverage.
With Prince Rupert, if it went out.... The Prince Rupert area itself is 77,000 square kilometres. When you add Tofino to it, there are another 30,000 square kilometres. If a tsunami hit Prince Rupert and knocked the centre out, you would lose radio coverage from Alaska to Washington State and along the west coast of Vancouver Island. That's not a small area.
You can have too much redundancy. On this coast originally there were only Coast Guard radio stations in Prince Rupert, Tofino, Comox, and Vancouver, and three vessel traffic centres. We actually went to five centres from seven when we merged.
It's as we put it before. It's just like a 911 operator, but the difference is that in a 911 centre, you're waiting for a telephone to ring, and once the phone rings you know it's an emergency.
I don't know if you've been at a Newfoundland kitchen party or anything like that. There are conversations going on all around you, and every once in a while you'll hear something in another conversation that intrigues you, but you can't hear all of it.
It's the same sort of thing when you're listening to different radio channels. You're not just listening to channel 16, as has been pointed out. If you are, and it's in Prince Rupert, for instance, then you're listening to channel 16 on 22 different sites, plus you're listening to channel 83A, which is a Coast Guard working channel, plus a couple of other channels as well, plus MF. All of this noise is coming in at the same time.
The more you concentrate the noise and the more noise you have there, the less likely you are to hear somebody call for help. Often when a call comes in, it is exactly that. It's “help”, or somebody who asks if anyone can hear them. It could be anything. People in trouble don't always say “mayday”, or “fire” or “I'm sinking”. Sometimes it's a simple request.
I recall a fisherman who called up one time and said he was taking on a bit of water and had been taking on water, actually, for about four hours. They were off the north coast of Vancouver Island. The guy didn't seem concerned at all, but it was a big issue, because that boat did sink and there was loss of lives.
Emergencies aren't always just “help”. It's not like that. If you can't hear the call properly, what are you supposed to do? Sometimes it's only one call, and I can give you lots of examples.