Serious staffing problems at Lerwick coastguard station

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.

PCS spokesman Mike Smith.
PCS spokesman Mike Smith.

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.”


Add Your Comment
  • Ali Inkster

    • August 20th, 2013 12:14

    Here’s a thought why not try recruiting in Shetland to fill jobs in Shetland, or is that too simple.

  • Mike Smith

    • August 20th, 2013 13:47

    The Coastguard have done that in the past however, with cut-backs to the civil service (and times of austerity) the Government have set rules that will not, under any circumstance, allow “us” to purely recruit locally.
    The National recruitment campaign includes Shetland.

    Type “DFT/297/13 HM Coastguard Watch Officer” into a web search engine, then from one of the job sites follow the link to the civil service job site – all details and the possibility to apply is there!

  • Michael Mcfeeley

    • August 20th, 2013 14:40

    How would I go about applying for this post?.
    I am from Greenock/Gourock Scotland and I am really interested.

  • Ali Inkster

    • August 20th, 2013 15:06

    If it is advertised nationally then an advert in the Shetland times, the Shetland news website or even Shetlink would not be in breach of the rules. and may generate a bit of interest locally, and if civil service rules are so inflexible that it does breach the rules then it shows that the civil service mandarins are complete and utter morons to come up with these rules.
    Governments make policy but it is the civil service that implements it and that generally is where things seem to go wrong.

  • Christopher Johnston

    • August 20th, 2013 15:24

    With a staff of 16 there are only two on watch? Could union work rules be part of the problem?

  • Mike Smith

    • August 20th, 2013 17:39

    Michael – Type “DFT/297/13 HM Coastguard Watch Officer” into a web search engine, then from one of the job sites follow the link to the civil service job site – all details and the possibility to apply is there on that site too.

    Burroughston Broch – in short: No.
    1) 16 may sound quite a lot however they are spread across 4 watches covering 24/7. You may be surprised, but all it takes is one from a watch to be absent /unavailable (off island) on leave or a course, and another to go ‘sick’ at short notice, leaving just 2 on duty. Of the apparent 12 that are “off duty” – (assuming all are on the island and available), 4 of them will be about to start the next shift, 4 will have just finished the previous shift, and therefore unavailable. That leaves a “spare” pool of just 4 – who are enjoyinging their off time – equivalent to the weekend for an office worker. The truth is, that we have covered the majority of the vacancies and shortages through the good will and flexibility of the staff – but it cannot continue forever.
    2) Not all the staff at Shetland are union members. Even those that are, are free thinking professionals and will not follow the directions of the union like mindless morons just for the sake of it.
    As such, the staff at Shetland Coastguard are proud (yes, proud!) to be able to say that even when strike action has been called by the union they have refused to abandon their specialist posts and take part in the strike. They have taken some “abuse” from the PCS union for taking this stance, but to their credit the staff have stuck to their principles, and I assume they will continue to do so in the future; The staff know that in the islands there are few, if any, that can step in at relatively short notice and provide a good as life-saving service to the coastal and maritime communities that Shetland Coastguard provide. I acknowledge tht the MCA have a “pairing” arrangement in place between the Shetland and Aberdeen stations that in theory means the Aberdeen staff could “run” the Shetland area however, that is currently untested/unproven, and also dependant on Aberdeen having the numbers of staff to do so – they, like us, and most stations around the UK are in the same situation – staff and watch levels nearing crisis levels at times.

    Mike Smith
    chair, Shetland Coastguard PCS union


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