LESS than 50 coastguard officers would run the UK’s entire coastguard rescue coordination service from three 24 hour stations and five sub stations under radical new plans by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.
Speaking on BBC Radio Shetland on Friday, MCA chief executive Sir Alan Massey said controversial plans to cut the number of coastguard rescue centres by more than half were not driven by the need to cut costs.
He also promised that the Sumburgh based search and rescue helicopter base would not affected by any cuts, not would the volunteer coastguard rescue teams.
The MCA has been planning to modernise the coastguard service since before the new coalition government took office.
Shipping minister Mike Penning was due to announce the closure of Lerwick coastguard station on Tuesday, but the decision was changed at the last minute to allow a 14 week consultation to decide whether Lerwick or Stornoway should stay open.
Shetland MSP Tavish Scott has lodged a motion with the Scottish Parliament calling on both stations to remain. Stornoway is the government’s preferred option because it is regarded as cheaper to run.
Sir Alan said that the MCA had carried out “very detailed statistical analysis” of every incident the coastguard has dealt with historically.
“We have judged that around 48 coastguards on watch anywhere in the UK, because they are connected in some way with what’s going on at sea, can cope with the most number of incidents, whether they be major or minor or concurrent or not, that are ever likely to happen,” he said.
At the moment one coastguard station can be lying idle while another is extremely busy, and the workload cannot be shared because they are not interconnected. “You end up with far too many people with not enough to do,” he said.
“This is the time though to move forward with the technology we’ve got and with the capability that’s vested in our very good people and make a better fit for the way we actually coordinate search and rescue.
“What I am at pains to put across is that there will be no diminution of the quality of search and rescue and rescue services in particular around the Shetland Islands as a result of these proposals.”
He said he understood why there is such a high level of public concern and sympathised with those whose lives would be affected by any changes.
But he promised that the Sumburgh coastguard rescue helicopter base would not be affected by the changes, nor would the number of volunteer coastguard teams be reduced.
“This is about coordination, it’s not about rescue provision. The providers of rescue capability will not be touched or affected one iota by this. We are talking about coordination and your leisure seafarers, your fishermen, your commercial ship operators will still be able to talk to an experienced knowledgeable coastguard wherever he is.”
In response to concerns about the loss of local knowledge, he said: “We stand by the principle that the best local knowledge of all is vested in those who live and work right around the coast we are dealing with.
“In Shetland for instance you have two lifeboat stations and 23 volunteer coastguard rescue teams who really do know the coast and at the moment our coastguard coordinators in their watch station draw on that experience and expertise and knowledge and actually that’s what they will do in the future just from somewhere else.”
It was later pointed out that Shetland only has 17 volunteer rescue teams and one of those is currently not operating.
Sir Alan also denied the main purpose of the exercise was to cut costs. “Saving money is clearly a by product of any rationalisation that reduces the number of places and the number of people you need to do something, but actually no, we are at a stage now where with technology and the capability of our people there’s an unmissable opportunity to move forward and produce a much more effective and efficient and especially a much more resilient system.”