Coastguard volunteers could walk away from the emergency service if the Lerwick station is forced to close.
MCA chiefs were warned dedicated teams on cliff, mud rescue or inland searches may give up their voluntary roles if the strong relationship with Knab Road staff is lost.
The warning came at last night’s public meeting at Lerwick Town Hall, where 100 people voiced their opposition to the proposals which could see the Lerwick station close.
Much play has been made by MCA chiefs of the important role volunteers will play in the slimmed down coastguard service since the consultation – now entering its final few weeks – began in December.
However volunteer coastguard for Unst, Ruth Grainger, warned the panel of four representatives that goodwill from voluntary teams would be lost if they were forced to liaise with staff in Aberdeen rather than Lerwick.
“You’ve based your proposals on finance, streamlining the system and improving the ICT technology,” she said. “You’ve said you depend on volunteers, but you’ve made the assumption that these volunteers will stick around.
“There is a close relationship between volunteers and our colleagues in Lerwick. I feel you’ve underestimated the value of the closeness of the relationship between volunteers and the people who support us in Lerwick.”
She was backed by isles MP Alistair Carmichael, who said Orkney volunteers had given up their work when the station there closed.
“We know what happens when you take away a coastguard station, because you did it in Orkney 10 years ago. The number of volunteers there has gone down. Why do you suppose that is?” he said.
MCA coastal safety manager Ian Burgess admitted that was “not something we’d like to see happen”.
“I wouldn’t want to see people leaving because of the modernisation of the coastguard,” he said.
“This proposal is to do with the coastguard rescue service, and the proposal is to enhance how we deliver search and rescue. It would be a shame to lose all that because the community in Shetland do depend on volunteer coastguards greatly.”
During the meeting MCA representatives struggled to convince people a slimmed down coastguard service would benefit maritime safety.
MCA’s regional director for Scotland and Northern Ireland, Bill McFadyen, said interconnection of the maritime operations centres and sub-centres would provide “a national system that allows more flexibility around the UK”.
He said the current system, which sees centres staffed to cover peak activities all year round, would be altered to strengthen resilience and make better use of staff time.
Should Lerwick remain open its staff could turn to colleagues elsewhere in the UK for help at peak times.
Mr McFadyen added the number of sector managers employed by the agency would increase from 64 to 96.
These, he said, would be based at the operations centres 24-7, providing added support for volunteers and sector teams.
However many argued better resilience could still be provided by retaining all 18 coastguard stations, rather than pushing ahead with closures.
There were also fears communication links to the mainland would suffer, despite claims about improvements thanks to the fibre-optic cable from Faroe.
Under the proposals either Lerwick or Stornoway coastguard stations would close, with the surviving unit operating on daylight hours only.
The only 24-hour operations centre in Scotland would be in Aberdeen. Another would be based on the south coast, in the Portsmouth/Southampton area.