At around 7:30 p.m. on May 18, just as the long weekend was coming to a close for hundreds of boaters in British Columbia, the Coast Guard’s Comox centre broadcast a notice to mariners.
“All Stations, All Stations, All Stations. This is Comox Coast Guard Radio,” a person said.
“All mariners are requested to maintain a listening watch on channel 16 that is south of Nanaimo that is due to Victoria Coast Guard Radio Marine Communications Channel 16 is experiencing technical difficulties. Any mariners hearing any “Mayday Calls” south of Nanaimo are to relay those distress calls to Comox Coast Guard Radio on Channel 16.”
It meant that for over 15 minutes, the Coast Guard responsible for the busiest waterway in the country–spanning Canadian waters from approximately Nanaimo to Port Renfrew–was unable to receive or give communications to any boaters that might have needed assistance, for whatever reason.
“Everybody was affected. Boaters headed back from the long weekend, if they had trouble, if they were in a distress situation…and called for the Coast Guard during that period of time, nobody from the Coast Guard would have heard their call,” says Allan Hughes, Western Director for Unifor 2182.
Hughes says it’s not the first time the station has experienced a communications blackout, but this was the most noteworthy. He says it’s due to the station handling a much higher volume of calls since the closures of the Kitsilano Coast Guard station, the Vancouver Marine Communications and Traffic Service Centre, and the centre in Ucluelet.
“The old technology they’re relying on was not designed in Victoria to handle this much communications traffic and subsequently those servers failed,” he says.
In Monday’s incident, mariners were advised to call U.S Coast Guard, or try 9-1-1 on their cell phones, if there was an incident, and Comox Coast Guard also covered a portion of the affected area. But Hughes says there are many places where there’s little to no cell phone reception, and some of the remote areas would be left completely uncovered.
“The government and senior managers have said all along that they won’t place lives at risk…however we’ve seen through the implementation of new technology that’s not the case. They continue to have a number of outages.”
Global News has requested comment from the Coast Guard, but has not yet received a reply.