Is Our Coastguard Drowning?

5,907 views  |   September 5th, 2014 

Dennis O'Connor questioning Maritime & Coastguard Agency's CEO; Sir Alan Massey taken at a Coastguard rally

There has been a campaign to stop the closure of UK Coastguard stations which has been going for a couple of years and just about to reach a key moment, with a flotilla demonstration being organised for Saturday 13th September to be held off Portland.

In this guest blog Dennis O’Connor, Coordinator of the national Coastguard SOS Campaign Group and former Coastguard rescue officer, updates us on the current situation.

Britain’s 185 year old Coastguard service is going through a very difficult and prolonged period of forced change as a result of Government austerity measures. Many people including some Coastguard officers argue that damage is being done to the service and that the ability to carry out essential search & rescue (SAR) operations are at risk.

However, they do agree that change for the better under the term modernisation is welcome but not if the risks involved outweigh the benefits or are being underestimated.

Boat protest

Background to the Campaign

Since the announcement in 2010 by the Department for Transport (DfT) and Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) confirming the closure of maritime rescue coordination centres (MRCC’s) in favour of an untested centralised national maritime operations centre (NMOC) in Fareham, Hampshire.

The plan has been heavily criticised by many MP’s including the Transport Select Committee which has resulted in the initial closure plan being scrapped and replaced with what some have termed a ‘hastily re-written alternative’.

However, with the closure process already underway, the ‘Future Coastguard (FCG)’ plan remains controversial with many Coastguard officers expressing their concerns about a worrying shortage of experienced and fully trained watch keepers and senior ranks to oversee SAR operations through the transition period and beyond.

In 2011, former Transport Minister Mike Penning assured fellow MP Sheryl Murray that:

‘One point in having Fareham open so early is that we will be able to trial the new system early, which will mean that no centres will close before the robustness of the system is demonstrated’ Mr Penning then proceeded to state that ‘should any blips be found in the system….no stations will close until we have the level of resilience that we do not have today’.

Less than twelve months later the closures of MRCC’s at Forth, Clyde and Yarmouth began but the MOC at Fareham is only now being prepared to begin a re-hashed phase of centralised coordination following the closure of MRCC’s at Solent and Portland.

Even at this late stage the closure programme remains highly controversial after it was revealed in a recent Sunday Express exclusive ‘Coastguard rookies ‘put lives at risk’‘ that twenty three out of a reported forty seven staff at the NMOC are new recruits with no experience of search & rescue (SAR) coordination.

Concern for the future of the service has resulted in a steady haemorrhaging of Coastguard officers leaving the service which has seen the plan remaining caught in an increasing storm of controversy. Almost all MRCC’s are experiencing prolonged periods of understaffing of watch duties but despite this, the closures of Solent and Portland will be followed by the station at Brixham a few days before Christmas 2014. Next year, the final round of closures is due to take place beginning with Liverpool, followed by Swansea and finally Thames.

The Debate in Government

In a vain attempt to defend the situation, the former UK Shipping Minister Stephen Hammond (who was replaced in the recent cabinet re-shuffle) and the MCA repeatedly state that

‘Currently, where a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre 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.’

This is a grossly misleading a statement. When there is understaffing at nearly all stations is it possible that any ‘mutual support’ could be offered.

Whilst in his position as Chief Coastguard, Peter Dymond was asked it ‘it is a safe service’ to which he replied ‘

‘It is indeed a safe service and I think the point I must also make here is frontline resources: the search and rescue helicopters, RNLI lifeboats, Coastguard Rescue Teams are totally unaffected by this modernisation program’

This answer is a typical, well-rehearsed but worn out response which is inaccurate and insulting to officers who staff MRCC’s, because it implies that their role is of little significance in the rescue process. That is far from the truth as anyone who has required the services of HM Coastguard well knows: the role of MRCC officers is pivotal to manage all of the rescue assets.

As for the rescue assets being ‘totally unaffected’ – this is also untrue. The ‘modernisation’ program is set to make changes to the structure of all HM Coastguard Rescue Teams and in future they will receive tasking from anywhere in the UK not necessarily from the closest MRCC which would traditionally hold vital local knowledge of their particular area.

Dennis O'Connor, Coordinator of the national Coastguard SOS Campaign Group

The Negative Effect on the Service

Staff morale has been badly affected by the closure plan and fingers continue to be pointed at the mis-management of the scheme. In an attempt to shore up the desperate understaffing problem the MCA has carried out at least two recruitment drives which only achieved a very small measure of success.
This was predictable of course because people would be joining a Government organisation without long term job security necessarily.

In reality, so called ‘safe stations’, those who are not on the closure plan, appear to be affected by the closure plan too with MRCC’s at Dover, Aberdeen and Belfast also suffering from chronic staff shortages.
Staff around the coast are unhappy with ever changing and ambiguous directives and are openly questioning the process of recruitment often stating that it is not being carried out in line with the principal of vacancies being ‘advertised and open to all qualified, in a fair and open manner’.

Unquestionably the whole process has been badly mismanaged from the beginning and this has led to an unacceptable distraction for those responsible for SAR around the coast. The safety of those using the coast for recreational or commercial purposes has been compromised and it is the opinion of many, including vastly experienced Coastguard officers, that HM Coastguard is in fact drowning.

Without doubt HM Coastguard has been irreparably damaged and it is the opinion of many that regardless of what the process has already cost, the Government must stop this before any further damage is done. If it continues un-checked then lives will continue to be put at risk and this must not be allowed to happen.

Next Stage in the Protest

A flotilla demonstration is being organised for Saturday 13th September to be held at Portland. This will give everyone whether on land or sea the opportunity to acknowledge the selfless service of Coastguard officers who have watched over the coast over the years and will be a defiant message that the closure programme remains fundamentally flawed and dangerous.

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Posted by: First Class Sailing


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