The Coast Guard is cutting back on the staff on watch at the Prince Rupert Coast Guard station as of this month, but only when someone can’t make their shift, and only if the supervisor thinks they can manage without.
In order to save money the Federal Government is ordering DFO to claw back on the amount of overtime being paid to Coast Guard employees. There are usually three people manning communications equipment at all times in the Coast Guards marine communications and traffic services station in Seal Cove.
Usually, if someone is not able to make to their shift for whatever reason, another person is called in to make sure there are always three people, the extra person is then paid overtime for the shift. Under Ottawa’s directive, if the expected workload is small enough to be done by two people, they can’t call someone else in.
“We’ve done a study both regionally and nationally to identify periods of low-workload and to assist the supervisor. And the other thing is that the supervisors have the authority if they feel that the there is going to be sufficient workload for additional people to call someone in on overtime,” says Susan Steele, the Coast Guard’s regional director for Marine Services.
The workers who man the Seal Cove station are responsible for a lot like directing vessel traffic to prevent them from colliding or running aground. They also provide weather forecasts and lighthouse weather observations to sailors, and backup for emergency situations and for the border services and police.
Its a big job, says Canadian Auto Workers which represents the operators, especially in a port as busy as Prince Rupert. Allan Hughes is the regional director of CAW local 2182 and works in a coast guard station himself. He says that accidents are too unpredictable and the possible outcomes too dire to risk understaffing a station, even on days they expect to be quiet.
“We never know what day, what time of the day, when a vessel’s going to decide to sink or catch fire, or take on water, or have somebody fall overboard, or someone onboard have a medical emergency, or if Hartley Bay needs a medical evacuation and they can’t get it out through the phone lines,” says Hughes.
Hughes admits that there is a certain predictability to traffic in Prince Rupert, but says that the traffic in Rupert is always growing and has grown since the DFO did their study. The biggest problem is that if operators aren’t sitting at their posts, even if they get up to walk across a room, that’s one less person able to monitor the radios, direct traffic, relay information or call for help.
Operators work 12 hour shifts, says Hughes, but even they need to get up to go to the bathroom, get coffee, or go eat lunch. Having two people on staff can mean that sometimes only one person will be trying to manage everything.
Hughes says that they are aware of how much overtime they work could be an issue because they work the most of it out of any other branch of the federal civil service. According to Hughes, the workload takes its toll on employees and it’s something they have to do in order to ensure safety.
“Its a decision that was made in Ottawa by bureaucrats and the coast guard. Really, our message to the minister of Fisheries is: you maybe willing to assume the risk of reducing the number of people on watch to save money on overtime costs, but we don’t think its fair for you to assume that risk to the lives people in the communities we serve,” says Hughes.