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Coastguard cliff rescue teams “taken offline”

Cliff rescue in Shetland has been suspended until the paperwork has been sorted out. Photo Shetland Coastguard

CONCERNS have been raised about cliff top safety in Shetland after it emerged that the islands’ volunteer coastguard teams were stood down four months ago due to problems with paperwork.

New managers brought in after a national reorganisation by the Maritime & Coastguard Agency earlier this year discovered the lack of an audit trail covering rope rescue training in the isles.

In May Shetland’s eight cliff rescue teams were “taken offline” until refresher training was provided and the records updated.

However several experienced coastguard volunteers have now withdrawn their services over the way they have been treated by management over the past few months.

In one instance a Lerwick volunteer was sacked on the spot two weeks ago for failing to follow “radio protocol”, leading several of his colleagues to stand down.

On Friday an MCA spokeswoman offered reassurance that the islands’ coastguard rescue helicopter would respond to any emergency on the coastline.

However Shetland’s community safety and resilience board has voiced fears that the service will not be back in place before the winter weather sets in.

Chairman Alastair Cooper said: “With the winter coming, and it’s not many weeks away, we need to be reassured everything is in place as soon as possible so these teams can do what they need to do.”

An MCA spokeswoman said the organisation took all training, including rope rescue, extremely seriously and it was undertaken at the highest professional level.

She explained: “In this instance, an administrative procedure had not been carried out correctly which meant that it was not possible to verify the training records of each team member.

“HM Coastguard had no other option – given its understandably high standards over potentially life-saving training – than to stand down the team from rope rescue until refresher training and assessment has taken place.”

In the meantime, she said, the Sumburgh-based search and rescue helicopter was available if needed. If necessary coastguard rescue teams from outside Shetland could be brought in to deal with an emergency, she added.

The MCA wants to complete the rope rescue training as soon as possible, she said.

However coastguard volunteers have said privately that they are “incredibly frustrated” by the MCA’s approach to people with many years experience of carrying out cliff top rescues.

One said that he and several colleagues would be happy to carry out refresher training, but they did not want to be treated as if they were novices.

He added that there had been a communication breakdown during training exercises and they had not been told about some of the new protocols that had been put in place nationally.