The operators behind NorthLink Ferries have criticised the government for focusing on saving money instead of lives in its restructuring plans for the coastguard service.
In its response to the consultation on station closures the David MacBrayne Group said the review was “wrongly fixated on tasks and costs”. Instead, the coastguard’s “passion and focus” should be on a “targeted reduction in the unacceptable level of casualties and pollution incidents”.
In a covering letter to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), chairman Peter Timms highlighted the group’s position as the UK’s largest ferry operator in terms of vessels operated and routes served.
He said its 38 masters and 34 small ferry skippers who were professional seafarers with unrivalled experience of the Scottish coast and the types of incident to which they are called, made them uniquely qualified to comment on the proposals.
Mr Timms also highlighted Caledonian MacBrayne and NorthLink Ferries role as partner Search and Rescue (SAR) organisations.
He said: “David MacBrayne Ltd (DML), welcomes the intent to modernise the coastguard service which is necessary and overdue, however we have fundamental concerns, centred on our interpretation of the proposals, as simply a way of making the coastguard service cheaper, when they should be about improving safety at sea.
“We welcome the intention to introduce new technology. However, the focus of this technology must be on improving services and cutting casualties and pollution – not to cut costs.”
Mr Timms said the proposed changes to the employment and deployment of people and location of operating bases appeared to have ignored the inevitable social and economic impacts they would have on affected areas.
“As a government agency, the MCA must take responsibility for all aspects of their proposed changes, including the effects on remote and vulnerable communities.”
He said NorthLink staff had vast local knowledge and awareness, but often felt that knowledge was undervalued.
“Our masters and skippers sometimes feel . . . they have no say in what should be a continual improvement process to learn lessons from every call for assistance.
“The MCA is silent on its plans for its standard setting and regulatory activities. There are problems with these, and we would like to see these services included in delivery of MCA casualty reduction targets.
“We recommend that efforts to improve search and rescues should be executed in parallel with an external review of the effectiveness and application of regulatory standards.”
Mr Timms questioned why no mention had been made in the consultation document of the proposals to remove the emergency towing vessels (ETVs) from the north and west coasts of Scotland.
He said: “These vessels were not initially introduced to support our operations directly, but as a result of the Braer incident – and to provide cover for tankers transiting the Minches – they do nonetheless now provide critical cover for all vessels in these sea areas.
“The need for such cover has been evidenced on several occasions since their introduction and there are tangible benefits to justify retaining the service.
“The proposals also seem particularly at odds with good practice established in the US coastguard service and even in Europe, where Germany, France, Netherlands and Norway appear to be establishing a similar capability with ETVs that the MCA is planning to dismantle.”
The Shetland Times has already revealed the Lerwick station has been saved from closure, although there is still no word on whether it would be free to operate 24 hours a day.
Protesters have continued their fight to retain the station in the absence of any official word.