Staffing at Lerwick’s coastguard station remains in a “dire state”, with a shortfall in qualified staff at the Knab Road premises.
Seventeen watches are expected to be left undermanned this month, according to local representative from the PCS Union, Errol Smith.
He says the problem could leave the station relying on the goodwill of off-duty workers being drafted in to help in the event of a major incident.
The issue is not helped by the bigger patch Shetland Coastguard has been asked to watch over. Staff at the Knab are responsible for 43,840 nautical square miles, which stretches as far south 58 degrees at Helmsdale in Sutherland.
“Staffing levels at Shetland, for qualified staff, is in a dire state. We’re just managing to cover the watches, and in fact some of them we’re not covering,” said Mr Smith.
“This month – October – there are 17 watches undermanned.
“Day-to-day running it’s not really a problem, because you can still answer the phones. It’s only if you have a major, or multiple, incidents running that you are going to have problems.
“What you would do is probably phone around and drag guys in and bolster the watch if there was something like that happening. That’s down to the good-will of staff, and that’s if you can get anybody.”
Last year the coastguard played a major part in the Super Puma helicopter tragedy off Sumburgh, in which four people died. More recently, Shetland Coastguard was called upon to help a vessel carrying nuclear waste which caught fire and began drifting.
The union rep said 18-and-a-half full-time equivalent members of staff work at the Knab, which should have 20 as its full tally.
But while that may not sound like a serious shortfall, four of those are “brand new” and still require assistance from more experienced staff. Two, he said, are resigning at the end of the month.
“So that brings us down to 12-and-a-half qualified staff next month.”
He added some shortages were being covered with workers being taken back on temporary contracts.
“I think really the morale is just at rock bottom with the uncertainties at the moment.”
Mr Smith’s comments follow reports in the national media that coastguard staffing elsewhere in the country has reached crisis level, with stations haemorrhaging staff since a controversial series of cut-backs took place in recent years.
Those cuts almost led to the Lerwick station being closed, when it was pitched, unwillingly, into a battle for survival against its Stornoway counterpart.
After a lengthy campaign to save both the island stations the Forth and Clyde centres were instead earmarked for closure. South of the border Portland, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Brixham, Thames and Swansea were all given the chop. The changes mean Lerwick and Aberdeen cover the whole of the east coast of Scotland.
The MCA said its modernisation programme would lead to better and more rewarding jobs.
A statement said: “One of the key outcomes from the modernisation of HM Coastguard will be more rewarding coastguard jobs, with additional responsibilities and the appropriate pay to match; the government remains fully committed to achieving this.
“These are new roles that attract a different rate of pay, and staff will need to apply for these. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) worked with Trade Unions and other government stakeholders to deliver this.
“A pay remit has been developed and agreed with HM Treasury. Coastguard officers who are successful in this recruitment will be paid at the new rate when they take up a new coastguard job.”