We must fight coastguard closure plans

By Lee Coutts of Save Shetland Coastguard

What would happen if the government was to propose a radical reconstruction of the police, fire or ambulance services, closing 50 per cent of UK stations, leaving some of those open only during certain times of day, cut staff by almost 50 per cent and rely heavily on volunteers and technology. It doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?

It would just not happen to our emergency services, so what does the government class HM Coastguard as? A nationwide outcry has followed the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s consultation document to “modernise” the coastguard service. Since the announcement in December, local coastguard officers in Lerwick have been promoting the Save Our Station / Save Shetland Coastguard campaign.

They’ve also been trying to find out as much detail as possible about the MCA’s proposals, due to the lack of information on how the MCA plans to implement them. Coastguard workers have even had to use the Freedom of Information Act to get information from their employer, which in my opinion is bad practice on the part of the MCA.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have been invited to help the coastguards’ cause from an early stage and, while they’ve been doing an absolutely brilliant job of informing the public and keeping everyone up to date with the latest goings-on, there’s been little in the way of a public representation other than the Facebook and Twitter pages.

That situation changed recently when there was a protest outside the coastguard station. About 50 people turned out on a bitterly cold Friday morning to lobby the MCA chief executive, vice-admiral Sir Alan Massey.

During the protest, he was left in no doubt about opposition to closing Shetland’s coastguard station. Following the rally, we, the organisers, decided to form a campaign group to voice the concerns of the public. We’ve had our first meeting, in which we invited representations from different organisations and individuals, to help advise us. We drew up a list of tasks for the coming weeks, with the first item being the public meeting in Lerwick Town Hall tonight at 7.30pm. The meeting will be an extremely important opportunity to let the MCA know how strong public opposition is. Let us not be misled into thinking the campaign is won, just because the House of Commons select committee on transport is holding a full inquiry into the MCA’s current proposals. The inquiry is, of course, good news and could put an end to the closure proposals. However, the committee can only advise the government and the MCA’s own consultation is continuing as planned, so it is up to us, as residents of Shetland and Orkney, to do all we possibly can to persuade the

government to keep our coastguard station open. In any event, there will still be calls for the coastguard service to be modernised and our position should be to ensure that any changes would not increase the risk to life around in and around our shores.

Although this is supposed to be a consultation, the MCA has phrased the questions in such a way as to support their plans and leave little room for counter-arguments.

The MCA has been embarrassed by revelations that it did not carry out a proper risk assessment before proposing closures, proving that this outlandish plan is about government budget cuts rather than public safety.

The MCA seriously suggests that the Shetland coastguard station could be open only in “daylight” hours or closed all together. The ramifications of such actions would be disastrous for seafarers and the general public in and around Shetland and Orkney. We often have serious communication difficulties with the UK mainland via the two microwave links operated by BT. These difficulties would not be solved by the MCA’s plans. The situation would be even worse without local officers to co-ordinate search and rescue using short-range radios and phone lines. We all know how difficult it can be trying to surf the web from home in Shetland and if we are having problems there is a high probability the coastguard station is suffering also. Imagine having to rely on such poor communication links while trying to search for a missing boat and its crew.

We could face a situation where coastguards were effectively blind and unable to speak to a casualty using the Lerwick radio aerials. At present, if such a situation arises then the Shetland coastguard station can call on its many coastguard volunteers to station themselves on hilltops around our shores and relay all information back to the station in Lerwick, as the station is hard-wired to one of the aerials.

You do not have to be a communications expert to understand what this means: if Shetland Coastguard closes and there’s a breakdown in communications, most likely due to weather (but not necessarily) then the likelihood of an inadequate response to an incident at sea is greatly increased. Those in need of help would have no way to contact emergency services; no way of knowing if their message has been received; no way of knowing if anyone is coming to help; no way of letting anyone know their current situation and condition; all alone at sea, miles from anywhere, hoping that they will be saved!

This is a real possibility and, as many of our family and friends already earn a living by working at sea, this only adds to their fears and anxieties.

The MCA is quick to denigrate the value of local knowledge as only being able to name certain areas, voes, cliffs, landmarks, etc. While this knowledge is very important, no one person will ever claim to know everything. This kind of knowledge only grows over time and experience, but there is also the combined knowledge of the team in the coastguard station. They are trained to an extremely high standard and are used to working together. This teamwork adds to the local knowledge factor as each will know how best to manage a situation and function most effectively within the team on duty.

While the MCA believes local knowledge can be stored on a database it takes expert local knowledge to be able to access the relevant information, such as a place name spoken in local dialect or identifying the correct location due to numerous places of the same name. If someone were to call the coastguard stating they are “aff o’ Waas” how would that be entered into a database to access the information on local assets – said in dialect it could be interpreted and entered into the database as “Waz” instead of Walls and of course time will be lost trying to find a location. How many Hamnavoes are there? How easy would it be to forget that there may be more than one place of the same name and select the first Hamnavoe that is found on a map or chart – major disaster in the making?

In Shetland, other emergency services rely on the expertise and resources of the coastguard for certain types of incidents. No consideration has been given by the MCA as to how these vital services would be replaced or co-ordinated from a remote location and the impact on response times. I am unaware of the MCA informing or discussing the proposals with other emergency services before releasing the consultation document and this shows the apparent narrow mindedness of the agency management.

Having a coastguard station in Lerwick is a fundamental piece of the jigsaw that underpins the SIC civil contingency planning/civil resilience and forms an integral part of what local authorities refer to as IEM (Incident and Emergency Management) strategy. The MCA cannot say that it is not a core part of business as the coastguard is classed as a category one responder and is therefore obliged to assist in these plans under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

We must remember that during the winter months the sea temperature around Shetland and Orkney is so cold that the survival time of a person in the water can be measured in minutes (approximately 15 minutes without survival clothing and depending on sea conditions) and at 45 minutes a person would be doing extremely well to be alive. Upon falling into the water the cold will very quickly lead your body into shock (which can be so severe it can cause cardiac arrest) and/or panic (which can cause a person to thrash around in the water – the worst possible action as this very quickly uses energy and loss of body temperature which will lead to exhaustion and eventual drowning). It sounds dreadful but it shows the importance of every minute in an emergency rescue situation at sea.

I would strongly encourage people to attend the public meeting tonight as this could be the best opportunity for us, the Shetland community, to address the MCA directly with our concerns and state how important it is to retain the current level of service at Shetland Coastguard.

Please continue to write to our MP and MSP as they are our voices in government. You can also submit evidence to the MCA (by 24th March) and transport select committee (by 26th April). The more letters and evidence we produce, the more chance we have of being listened to. All the information and links are on the campaign website www.saveshetlandcoastguard.com


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