Coast Guard Closure Update: Technology v Manpower

4,026 views  |   December 19th, 2014 

In the summer our survey of south coast sailors provided a resounding "No!" against the closure of coast guard stations and a centralised system. In a follow up guest blog Dennis O'Connor, Group Coordinator from National Coastguard SOS, gives us an update on the campaign so far and highlights a potential issue to sailor safety, that arose over the last weekend when the UK’s air traffic control system ground to a halt due to a computer glitch. Could the same happen during an air sea rescue?

The recent IT failure at NATS (National Air Traffic Services), which caused chaos for thousands of UK air travellers, has once again brought the reliance on centralised technology to the forefront of people’s minds.

Even our own familiar gadgets malfunction on occasions but whilst this may be frustrating, it’s not necessarily life threatening. However, when the IT systems that keep the country moving fail it often brings with it misery and concern.

The Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) have embarked on a closure programme of maritime rescue coordination centres (MRCC) in favour of "new" technology.

Critics have argued that the planned loss of manpower from these stations (at least 159 Coastguards) will not be adequately supplemented by the MCA’s over – reliance on technology in one central location, and this will lead to unnecessary risk.

The MCA argue that they are moving forward and building a more resilient future Coastguard but with half of the UK stations closing it is of concern that the resilience in the system that protects lives, will in fact be weakened because there will be fewer stations in the network.

Air and Sea Rescue Practice at Holyhead.

The Centre of the Storm

In September this year, the Maritime Operations Centre (MOC) finally opened in Fareham. It is located in a building which was once reserved for the ill-fated FiREControl project before it was abandoned.

FiREControl proposed to reduce the number of control rooms used to handle emergency calls for fire services. Members of the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) had grave concerns about the feasibility of having 30% less staff to answer emergency calls and the loss of local knowledge and the plan was eventually scrapped in December 2010.

The irony of locating the MOC in a building tarnished with such history has not gone unnoticed and the argument against the loss of manpower and local knowledge remains exactly the same in this instance.

MP Assured Resilience

In November 2011, the then Shipping Minister; Mike Penning MP made a statement giving assurances that "no stations would close until we have the level of resilience that we do not have today" yet the closure programme began less than 12 months later despite no advances in technological equipment at MRCC’s and long before the fitting out of MOC began.

In fact a total of five MRCC’s closed along with the loss of considerable manpower before the MCA even began operations at Fareham which raises serious concerns about the former Ministers unequivocal statement.

The Changes Began at Falmouth

Lifeboat moored up in Falmouth

Despite a much criticised start, and the MCA failing to offer any proof that the future Coastguard (FG) plan will in fact work, Falmouth Coastguard became the first MRCC to become linked to the MOC.

This is due to be followed by Holyhead in December. Further concerns arise from this because Falmouth and Holyhead Coastguard are in effect currently isolated from every other MRCC in the country should anything go wrong.

Prior to the two stations becoming integrated into the new national network they could in theory call upon neighbouring stations to assist their workload if stretched because of a rise in incidents or understaffing.

The MCA has long since trumpeted the "established pairing arrangements" as a way of deflecting severe criticism for chronic staff shortages at MRCC’s around the coast but the reality was actually very different as experienced Coastguards attested to.

Stations were paired to enable resilience but even when the widely reported staffing crisis became apparent, the MCA defiantly insisted that the pairing arrangements could be called upon to ease the situation. It doesn’t take an expert to logically work out that if both neighbouring stations are understaffed then neither can offer much resilience to the other in those circumstances.

Air and sea rescue training in Holyhead

Chronic staff shortages are as a direct result of the closure programme. Apart from those who have left the service upon the closure of their MRCC, many Coastguards have quickly become disillusioned with the MCA’s determination to proceed with a closure plan that few neither wanted or felt was safe and workable.

It’s just a pity that those Coastguards did not have a Union as determined as the FBU were in fighting the FiREControl project.

Relying on a Single Point of Failure

Whichever way you look at it, experienced Coastguard manpower has been sacrificed in favour of technology which is yet to face its first major test.

Unlike the recent disruption caused to flights the stakes are high in this instance because people’s lives could be at risk. Not just the people who use the water for commercial or pleasure purposes, not just the holiday makers using the beaches or the walkers on coastal paths but also the rescuers themselves – the members of the Coastguard rescue teams and lifeboat crews who selflessly act to preserve life.

We are all at risk if the MCA’s over-reliance on technology fails and so too is a very proud and honourable emergency service – HM Coastguard.

This guest blog was written by Dennis O'Connor, National Coastguard SOS Group Coordinator. If you would like to see the results of our survey vist: Sailors Say "No!" to Coastguard Closures and Deniis’s previous blog Is Our Coastguard Drowning?

Posted by: First Class Sailing


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