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MCA: closing station will improve safety

MORE than 100 islanders firmly rejected plans to close or downgrade the Shetland coastguard coordinating station at a public meeting held in Lerwick Town Hall on Monday night.

Three senior managers with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) were unable to convince the audience that their proposals would actually make Shetland waters safer during a tense 90 minute question and answer session.

The MCA published its controversial proposals to close 10 of its 18 coastguard stations last December.

Their plan would leave just two 24 hour Maritime Operation Centres (MOCs) covering the whole of the UK, at Aberdeen and Southampton/Portsmouth.

These would be supported by six “fully integrated sub-centres” operating during the daytime only at either Shetland or Stornoway, Humber, Liverpool or Belfast, Swansea, Falmouth and at Dover.

The MCA’s regional director for Scotland and Northern Ireland, Bill McFadyen, said the changes would allow the service to respond to emergencies in a “smarter and more focused manner”.

Mr McFadyen, who worked as a watch officer at the Lerwick station between 1985 and 1993, said the restructuring was long overdue, would strengthen the network’s resilience and enhance maritime safety. It would also make better use of staff time, skills and technology.

The proposed changes would not reduce the number of coastguard volunteers and would increase the number of sector managers, he said. They would also not affect coverage from lifeboats and search and rescue helicopters, and would not change current radio communication and 999 arrangements.

Mr McFayden said he could understand the fear and anxieties of islanders, but added that it was crucial for the MCA to make better use of the resources it has.

“I can understand the local concern. None of us like to see a local facility of any sort be taken away from the community.

“What I will say is that at present we find ourselves in a position where at times the teams in Shetland can find themselves extremely stretched when there is a major incident. At present we have little opportunity to support a particular team quickly.

“The new system will allow us to manage the resources that we have, the men and women in the rescue coordination centres, in a more effective manner so that we can better target their skills to carry out the work that has to be required around the United Kingdom including here in Shetland.”

Assistant director for ICT James Findlay added that communication links between Shetland and the rest of the UK would improve thanks to BT linking in to the Faroese fibre optic cable. Even without the new connection, communication links had in the past been 99.86 per cent reliable, he said.

The local ‘Save our Station’ campaign said they believed better resilience would be provided by properly equipping the current 18 stations rather than closing down ten of them.

PCS union representative Alex Dodge, a Lerwick watch officer, said the meeting failed to give any reassurance to staff working at the Shetland station and left her “absolutely furious”.

“I feel the members of the public in the hall were not convinced by the arguments from management. Their fears were not allayed,” she said.

Following the meeting, islanders expressed their disbelief and anger. Round the world yachtsman Andrew Halcrow said the proposals did not make any sense.

“I was quite stunned when a slide came up saying that when the station here would close then safety would be enhanced. For the life of me, I cannot figure out how they have arrived at that conclusion. This is definitely a reduction in the service. I am very disappointed,” he said.

Retired head of ports and harbours with Shetland Islands Council, George Sutherland, said the reduction in the number of full time Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centres (MRCC) from 18 to two was “a step too far”.

“I feel it was worthwhile coming here tonight to hear what the managers of the MCA had to say, but I am not persuaded that their proposals are workable for this area.

“There may well be a case for a review of the coastguard, but a review that includes the removal of the MRCC from Shetland is not acceptable,” the former chairman of the Northern Lighthouse Board said.

Isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who is fighting within the UK government for the retention of the Lerwick coastguard station, said he believed the meeting had helped.

“There was a great deal of very strong feelings here about the possibility of losing the coastguard station.

“I think it is good that senior management from the coastguard agency was able to hear that. I was slightly concerned that at the end of the night there seemed still rather more questions than answers.”

He added: “I am confident that Shetland’s voice has already been heard, no more eloquently than it has been tonight.”

The MCA managers insisted that the consultation process was genuine and that no decision had yet been taken. The consultation runs until 24 March, and they urged anyone with an interest in the issue to submit their views on the proposals by that deadline.

The MCA is hosting a similar public meeting in Stornoway on Tuesday night.

Shetland Islands Council has convened a special meeting on 8 March to discuss its response to the ongoing consultation process.