Shetland coastguard is facing a meltdown in staff morale following a slew of resignations and has had no cliff rescue cover since June following an audit of coastguard area teams.
Four Lerwick based coastguard rescue officers (CROs) recently resigned after the on-the-spot sacking of one of their colleagues– an incident that is said to have crushed already declining staff morale.
The recently re-structured service is facing multiple problems according to one ex team leader who handed in his notice after an audit which identified “training shortcomings” led to Shetland’s eight cliff rescue teams being taken offline in May.
According to former Walls head of station Keith Watt morale in the service has plummeted since its re-organisation and highly-trained staff with years of experience have been stopped from undertaking cliff rescues.
Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokeswoman Heather Skull said the Shetland teams were still available to be used for search operations where needed.
She said: “HM Coastguard takes all training including rope rescue and other techniques very seriously. All training is undertaken at the highest professional level. In this instance, an administrative procedure had not been carried out correctly which meant that it was not possible to verify the training records of each team member. HM Coastguard had no other option – given its understandably high standards over potentially life-saving training – than to stand down the team from rope rescue until refresher training and assessment has taken place.”
Staff shortages have been compounded by the mass resignation of Lerwick coastguard rescue officers as the result of the on-the-spot sacking of one CRO during a training exercise at Sumburgh around a fortnight ago. The CRO, an area team leader, had allegedly been summarily sacked for failing to observe radio protocol – an incident which profoundly shocked his colleagues.
The coastguard commander for Orkney and Shetland is John Hope, and other CROs were unhappy at the way he handled the situation. They allege he tried to snatch the helmet and personal protective equipment off the man.
Four of the CROs resigned from their voluntary posts as soon as they returned to Lerwick that night.
It is not the first time Mr Hope, who was previously Solway sector commander, has been faced with the resignation of his subordinates.
Portling coastguard station was forced to close for five days and operations were called off after six resignations left the unit without enough volunteers to safely carry out rescues in November 2011.
Ms Skull yesterday confirmed that an investigation was taking place into the recent incident and that it was inappropriate to comment any more while it was underway.
The Shetland Times contacted Mr Hope but was unable to reach him.
Mr Watt said that he was not surprised to hear of the developments in Lerwick. “The writing is on the wall for the coastguard agency. It’s a bloody shame and a bloody disgrace that it has been allowed to come to this.”
Mr Watt said that he was tempted to resign after the cliff rescue teams were taken offline, but had been persuaded to stay on by Mr Hope with the promise that the teams would be back in action within a fortnight.
That did not happen and the final straw was when a station officer in Lerwick would not take Mr Watt’s word that the lifejackets at Walls were up to date and insisted in coming out to do an inspection.
Mr Watt, who was 17 years with the coastguard, including 12 as the station officer at Walls said that he was fully trained to undertake cliff rescues as were other CROs and that the new bureaucratic, centralizing structure of the coastguard was too much to take.
“They told us the re-structuring would not affect the men on the ground – it was more to do with the office and control room – that has not proved to be the case,” he said.
Mr Watt, who was the third generation of his family to be involved in Walls coastguard, said that the coastguard teams throughout Shetland were highly committed and tight-knit units and undertook the work out of a sense of duty.
The volunteer coastguards who undertake all the coastal search and rescue around Shetland are only paid the minimum wage for the hours they are called out and do not even get a retainer.
The Lerwick CROs who resigned were unwilling to be identified publicly because they hope they will be allowed to return to work once things are resolved.
They are the latest in a string of resignations which followed the restructuring of the coastguard – a process which included the single sector managers in Orkney and Shetland theoretically being replaced by two for each island, with Mr Hope in overall command.
One of the resigned CROs, who asked for anonymity, said it was not clear at the moment what would happen, or if there would be insurance cover, should any of the stood-down volunteers attend an emergency.
He said that most of the resigned CROs, whose combined coastguard experience is said to come close to 100 years, are keen to return to their part-time work if the situation is resolved and thus want to remain anonymous.
“We provide 24 hour cover for the minimum wage for the hours we are working. None of us are in it for the money. We do it because we are on an island surrounded by the sea and we are an integral part of the emergency services.
“I have a lot of respect for the coastguard service and enjoy my time working at it and the camaraderie. We all feel really sad and frustrated at the current situation.”
He said that all the CROs were now faced with a “moral dilemma” of whether to attend emergencies or not and that the coastguard teams were one of the three main arms of the sea rescue services along with the lifeboat and rescue helicopters.