Shetland Coastguard will soon have to cover an area “substantially larger” than its current patch, following the closure of Forth Coastguards on the Scottish mainland next month.
As of 27th August, the Knab Road station in Lerwick will be responsible for massive stretches of the North Sea, despite suffering from serious staff shortages.
The new patch to be covered by isles watch officers will stretch from Cape Wrath, up to 62 degrees north, and across to the imaginary line which divides UK and Norwegian waters. It also includes parts of the Sutherland coastline as far south as Brora.
Currently only 19 people are working as watch officers at the Lerwick station – one of them part-time. The station is meant to have a complement of 22.
The details emerged today as the cross-party House of Commons transport committee announced it was seeking new evidence on issues raised during its investigation into the coalition government’s streamlining exercise for the MCA, which almost resulted in the closure of the Lerwick branch.
Last June the committee said unpopular plans to close either Lerwick or Stornoway station and leave the surviving unit to operate in daytime hours only were “seriously flawed”.
Both stations were saved following an intense, long-running campaign. The committee is now looking for more information on the impact of the changes which have been made, such as the imminent closure at the Forth.
The Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union spokeswoman Alex Dodge said MCA staff were having to work harder with fewer resources.
She said: “Forth Coastguard ceases to be operational as of 27th August as part of the plans [to streamline the coastguard service], and from that date onwards Shetland Coastguard covers an area from Cape Wrath up to 62 degrees north – the end of the UK search and rescue area – across to the Norwegian line and down to 58 degrees north at Brora bridge.
“It’s considerably larger that what we have at the moment. We have 18 full-time officers and one part-time officer, and out of those five are trainees and we’re supposed to have a watch-keep complement of 22.”
She said staff were already responsible for compiling marine reports for tankers and other vessels passing through the Pentland Firth.
“The powers that be hoped that staff from closing stations would move to stations that are staying open, but that doesn’t seem to have happened.”
Mrs Dodge said workers at the local station, who campaigned hard to have the unit saved, would be sending a written submission to the “influential” committee.
“As a station we are going to be putting in written evidence,” she said. “It would be crazy not to, especially because of all the work we put into it.
“As a station we must respond to that. It’s a fairly influential committee and, after all that happened last year, I think we need to continue with the fight to ensure that everything is right.”
Revised recommendations eventually put forward by the government included Lerwick and Stornoway among eight sub-centres which all operate around the clock, although several other stations from across the UK were earmarked for closure, Forth among them.
Now written evidence is being sought over how the changes which were made are being implemented, and how the changes have impacted on service delivery.
Last June the committee of six Conservative and Liberal Democrat and five Labour MPs rubbished the original proposals, describing them as “seriously flawed”.
When Shetland was saved union officials warned the changes which did get the nod shifted too much power to Southampton’s main operating centre (MOC), which was effectively designated as a command centre for the rest of the UK. Mrs Dodge said those concerns were still very real.
The transport committee is also trying to follow up its recommendations surrounding emergency towing vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group.
Last year the committee chairwoman Louise Ellman said the withdrawal of four emergency tugs from around the UK coastline was “quite literally … inviting disaster”.
Recently it emerged that an emergency tug based in Orkney will provide cover for Shetland and its surrounding waters.
The specialist handling and towing vessel Herakles, formerly the Anglian Prince, will provide the service until March 2013. She will be operated by Swedish contractor Reder AB Nestor and will be located “in and around central and southern Orkney”, according to the MCA.
Responses are sought by 14th September.