With just a few crackles and pops of static over the scanner, Ed Tickner’s voice was clear and strong.
“This will be the final broadcast originating from the Comox Communications Centre and it has been an honour to serve the maritime community over the last 108 years. Comox Coast Guard Radio, out.”
At 12:20 p.m. Tuesday, the radio then went silent at the Comox Marine Communications and Traffic Services (MCTS) Centre, located on Wireless Road at Cape Lazo.
“It was very emotional, actually. It was kind of surreal; I had not expected it. The staff there were very professional, but they were also very emotional,” Tickner explained shortly after the last broadcast.
The retired watch supervisor and training officer, who worked at the Comox MCTS centre for 22 years, came to visit staff at the centre on its final day, and was asked to do the broadcast. Tickner was on shift during the first day of the new station at Cape Lazo in 1993.
“It was kind of sombre, that was the general mood. People are sad that an era has come to an end. One hundred and eight years of history with the station, and having the final day is difficult.”
The decision to close the Comox MCTS centre was made in 2012 by the then-Conservative government. The plan for the province was to centralize the major coastal stations in Prince Rupert and Victoria. The rationale was efficiency, in terms of software development and better technology.
In December, following the Liberal’s announcement to reopen Vancouver’s Kitsilano coast guard station, Courtenay-Alberni NDP MP Gord Johns along with North Island-Powell River NDP MP Rachel Blaney, urged government to consider putting a hold on the closure.
In early May following public hearings, a House of Commons standing committee on Fisheries and Oceans tabled a report on the closure of the Comox MCTS centre. It noted the overarching objective of the committee’s recommendations is that the planned closure must proceed with caution to ensure the safety of mariners and the environment.
MCTS provides marine safety communications co-ordination with rescue resources and the Joint Rescue Co-ordination Centre in Victoria; vessel traffic services and waterway management; broadcasts weather and safety information; sail plan services, and support for other government and marine agencies.
Allan Hughes, president of Unifor Local 2182, which represents the workers at the MCTS centres including Comox, said the staff of 17 had mixed emotions throughout the day.
“It’s a new beginning for some that are continuing with their careers in Victoria, there’s three people who are actually retiring.
“There’s a number of them who have opted not to go to Victoria for a host of reasons. Their careers are ending with the coast guard today.”
For three years, he said the Conservative government would not meet with the union to discuss the closures across Canada, but rather “steamrolled ahead with it.”
“When the Liberal government was elected last October, we really thought we had an open dialogue, and to lobby and work with the government to see why it made no sense to close this centre.”
Hughes explained Victoria will now become the busiest centre in Canada, and said he’s concerned about short-staffing, large overtime demands, and now fewer eyes and ears listening to distress calls.
There will continue to be the same amount of radio sites, he noted, but fewer officers to handle the duties.
“(Victoria) will handle approximately half of the search and rescue cases and traffic vessel movements. It will cover the area from Sooke through the Inside Passage, Juan de Fuca Strait, all the way to the north end of Vancouver Island on the Inside Passage, that includes Vancouver Harbour … all the way up to Port Hardy.
“They needed 11 of us to make it work, there’s about eight or nine that are going.”
He said the equipment to modernize the Comox centre is already in place, with the difference being in cables – currently they run up to the operations room floor where officers work, but it will now be transferred to a phone line and sent to Victoria, which he added is susceptible to damage.
Hughes noted the normal overtime budget is about half a million dollars in Victoria prior to consolidation for about 28 officers. They are now going up to a staff of 50, but are short-staffed.
“We figure the overtime budget for next year will be about $2.2 million, and we figure it’s probably about half a million to modernize the centre here,” he said. “We truly believe that it’s going to cost more to close us than to keep us open.”