Staffing levels at Shetland Coastguard’s station have apparently reached “crisis point” with at times only two watch officers covering 12-hour shifts.
A shortfall of numbers at the Knab Road premises has left existing staff struggling with the larger area they have been left to cover following station closures elsewhere.
Only 16 out of an available 23 posts are filled. Union leaders say watch levels have been covered thanks to the goodwill of flexible staff who have moved shifts to help cover the shortfall. They warn it could take months before the gap in staff numbers has been plugged.
The situation comes two years after the station was saved from the axe following a major campaign launched in response to closure plans.
Shetland PCS coastguard branch chairman Mike Smith said the staffing situation at the Knab Road station was very worrying.
He said: “The situation now … is we are undergoing this future coastguard programme where, originally, they wanted to shut this station.
“All this year … we’ve been struggling to cover minimum watch levels. We’ve been doing that via overtime and people being flexible and moving shifts where they can.
“There have been occasions where we’ve been down to just two people on watch which is where, really, we’re at a crisis point.
“With two, they can handle the routine stuff as it comes and fairly straightforward incidents, but if anything more complicated occurs they are really going to be struggling.”
Mr Smith highlighted a recruitment drive launched by the MCA nationally, which had attracted new blood to the service. But none of the new recruits have been posted here. While he hopes trainees from a fresh bout of new recruits will come to the isles, he fears it could take months before the recruitment process is finalised.
Mr Smith added: “They are just in the process of doing another trawl now for staff. With a bit of luck we’ll get somebody from that.
“We can call on colleagues in Aberdeen to assist, but they’re in Aberdeen and are not going to be as familiar with the area as staff here are.”
A coastguard spokeswoman said: “The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) recently completed a recruitment campaign where 28 Watch Officer vacancies were filled at locations around the coast. Another recruitment campaign is under way.
“Currently, where a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) is experiencing reduced staffing levels, established ‘pairing’ arrangements are used. This means each MRCC can be connected to at least one other MRCC that will provide mutual support.
“Under the future structure, the introduction of the ‘National Network’ as part of the modernisation of HM Coastguard will enable the National Maritime Operations Centre and all other centres to co-ordinate any incident around the UK coast, enabling workload and incidents to be managed nationally rather than locally as at present.”