Shetland Islands Council is supporting a plan to keep three coastguard centres in Scotland open in Shetland, the Western Isles and Aberdeen.
In its official reponse to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) consultation into the proposed closure of 10 of the 18 coastguard stations around Britain’s coastline, including either Lerwick or Stornoway, the council warns that communications between the isles and the mainland are not robust enough for Shetland to do without a station of its own.
Last week The Shetland Times revealed that the government has already decided to keep open Lerwick amid concerns that telecommunications links could not be guaranteed to function 100 per cent of the time, although no decision has been made on whether to keep it operating 24 hours a day.
Council convener Sandy Cluness gave his support to plans from The Outer Hebrides Coastguard Task Group (OHCTG), which includes Western Isles Council, for keeping three coastguard centres in Scotland open.
The proposals are for a 12-centre model across the UK, including six stations for England, two in Wales, one in Northern Ireland and three in Scotland. Linking Stornoway, Lerwick and Aberdeen would create what is being described as a Scottish “tri-service” centre, increasing the “resilience” of each centre. Stornoway would have primary responsibility for the west coast, Aberdeen for the east coast and Shetland the north coast.
Mr Cluness said: “It is vital that the councils act together on this. We must not be divided. I fully support the initiative from the Western Isles for a three-centre model in Scotland.
“I would like to pay tribute to our hard-working team in Shetland for putting together a full and comprehensive response for the consultation. One which makes clear that losing the coastguard station, and indeed threatening the provision of emergency tugs, will put shipping at risk and could cost lives.”
The 280-page council submission to the MCA consultation, which ends tomorrow, states: “Bitter experience has shown that centralised call centres do not deliver the best service and have, at times, placed individuals in greater harm.
“The ‘NHS 24’ call centre has regularly tasked medical response to the wrong settlements of similar names and occasionally to the wrong island groups. The ‘FiReControl’ system for England and Wales, which effectively proposed centralised call centres, has cost the public purse £435million, with ongoing costs even though the system has now been scrapped.
“The removal of 22 experienced and qualified coastguard officers will result in a reduction in resilience for Shetland. It would leave the islands particularly vulnerable to communications failures between here and the mainland. The current system has in-built hard-wired resilience that allows the coastguard station to operate even when links to the mainland are severed. Under the current proposals, a loss of communications between Shetland and the mainland, would leave the volunteers with only handheld radios and binoculars to respond to any incident within the area.”
Mr Cluness added: “I understand that the future of funding for the Maritime Incident Response Group, which trains and deploys fire service personnel at sea, is also under threat. This is unacceptable.”
A representative of the SIC will travel to Stornoway on 19th May to give evidence to members of the parliamentary transport select committee, which is meeting there to consider the coastguard closure issue. No final decision is expected to be announced on the closures until after this committee has issued its report, which is forecast to be in July.