MCA pinning Coastguard Station closures on ‘banking’ local knowledge

Bizarre as it may seem, the Maritime and Coastguard Association [MCA]  is hoping to justify the UK Government proposal – to which it has agreed -to close  50% of Coastguard rescue coordination centres at Liverpool, Brixham, Clyde, Portland, Thames, Swansea, Forth and Yarmouth.

The Government plan is to centralise incident coordination responsibilities and distribute the workload to quieter stations. For instance, this would see the busy Clyde Coastguard closed by the end of this year and its massive and complex sea area transferred to the responsibility of the quieter Belfast Station.

Belfast already has responsibility for the coast of Northern Ireland, including its sea lochs, between the northern coastal border with the Republic of Ireland at Lough Foyle and the eastern border at Carlingford Lough. Under the proposed rearrangements, Belfast would also take on Clyde Cloastguard’s huge sea area from the Mull of Galloway to Ardnamurchan Point – including the islands of Arran, Cumbrae and Bute and all of the sea lochs in the Clyde waterway system – and the Atlantic Islands of Islay, Jura, Colonsay, Gigha, Coll, Tiree, The Treshnish Isles, Iona, Mull, the Slate Isles, Lismore and Kerrera.

Much of this is in Argyll and the Isles, whose coastline is longer than that of France.

The complexity of this sea area is bewildering enough for those who live here never mind those who do not.

Local knowledge is, of course, vital in identifying accurately where a casualty is located in order to instruct a lifeboat or SAR helicopter correctly.

It is true that with the movement of coastguard staff around the various UK stations, there will be coastguards at the Belfast station who have worked at Clyde and will  have had knowledge of this sea area. But that knowledge will not be current and may not be deeply embedded in the memory of the officer concerned.

Clyde Coastguard’s is arguably the most complex sea area in the UK  – and it takes no more than five minutes with as bland and uninformative a document as a road map to establish this fact.

Coastguard campaigners are adamant that the planned amalgamation of areas of responsibility can only increase the risks involved. In some areas this risk will centre on the volumes of commercial shipping, In others, like much of Clyde Coastguard’s, the risk will centrally be to the leisure sailing sector which is a lively feature of such waters and coastlines.

Speaking on behalf of the National Coastguard SOS group, Dennis O’Connor says: ‘The planned closure of Coastguard rescue coordination centres is not based upon operational reasoning.

‘We are very concerned that insufficient consideration has been given to the affect that the loss of stations will have on coastal communities and on the safety of those who use the coast for recreational and commercial purposes.

‘The planned centralisation of incident coordination has been rejected by Coastguard officers and campaigners because essential local knowledge will be lost.

‘The Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) are pinning everything on the trials of (as yet) unproven technology to ‘capture’ local knowledge but with the first of the stations due to close in a matter of weeks it is highly likely that key knowledge will be lost’.

The MCA’s  wish-list plan is so surreal as to make one ask if they have found a way to hoover the contents of a specific part of a serving officer’s memory into a data store and simultaneously translate them into digital format?

There is no substitute for local knowledge.

A data bank will reveal that there are three sea lochs called ‘Tarbert’ within Clyde coastguard’s area. It will not be able to tell which of these is the site of the distressed casualty. The location of these lochs is such that a mistaken instruction to a lifeboat could not be rectified in tie to get to the correct location unless the situation was very far from being an emergency.

Has the UK Government reshuffle enabled an informed rethink?

In the recent Cabinet reshuffle, Secretary of State for Transport, Justine Greening MP, was replaced by Patrick McLoughlin MP.  At the same time Shipping Minister, Mike Penning MP -  who has been a central figure in plans to close Coastguard stations, was replaced by Stephen Hammond MP.

Dennis O’Connor says: ‘The recent reshuffle has brought fresh hope that the new Ministers will adopt more of an open dialogue approach and will urgently reconsider the closure programme.

‘We have written to both Mr McLoughlin and Mr Hammond requesting a meeting at their earliest convenience in order that we may be able to assess the affect that the change in Ministers will have on the closure plans’.

It is certainly important for rational and informed decision taking that the new ministers should choose to meet with those who actually know the score on the impact of the current proposals at an operational level.

Mr Hammond’s CV betrays no experience of personal or professional knowledge of matters maritime or even marine. Although born and educated in Southampton, he was a city financier by profession and has been deeply engaged in politics since the late 180s. He is MP for Wimbledon, whose nearest coastguard station is some way away.

The new Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin MP, is from Staffordshire, trained in agriculture and from a mining family whose example he followed. He has no natural affinity with the maritime world nor, indeed, with the aviation world which, with the row over the third runway for Heathrow, is likely to be his most pressing concern.

The coastguard campaigners and those of us who know how important the coastguard service is, can only hope that both new ministers in this department will recognise the limitations on their understanding and see the wisdom of meeting and listening to the information from the coastguards.

Submissions to the Transport Select Committee

Campaigners fighting controversial cuts to the UK Coastguard service have submitted their formal response to the Transport Select Committee Inquiry who are examining the affect that closures will have on coastal areas.

Despite two public consultations, the National Coastguard SOS Campaign Group remain concerned that the plan remains dangerously flawed.

Submissions to the Transport Select Committee inquiry must be received no later than 14th September.

The SOS campaign group are urging maritime stakeholders and the public to submit their concerns.

Details of the inquiry may be found on the parliamentary committees website here ; or on the Coastguard SOS Campaign website here.

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17 Responses to MCA pinning Coastguard Station closures on ‘banking’ local knowledge

    • Speaking as a yachtsman who spends several weeks a year at sea monitoring Clyde Coastguard on CH16 I have to say that they do a good and extremely professional job.

      Clyde currently deals with the largest coastguard area in Britain – up to 2,500 miles of coastline. It has 41 coastguard rescue teams under its control and 28 ferry routes which it is responsible for. In 2010 Clyde dealt with more incidents than both Belfast and Stornoway put together.

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    • We have now established that some staff have left already and that this has given the MCA the opportunity to migrate systems and cover to Belfast, which it has been doing.

      Clyde Coastguard are evidently still covering daytime rescues – but at nowhere near previous levels.

      We understand that staff morale is damaged and that the impact of the 90 days notice period and the direction of personal futures is hard going while trying to keep focused on the task at hand.

      This is the classic recipe for shutting something down, of course – progressive undermining of its effectiveness.

      The default complicity in this loss of the Scottish Government is further proof that they have taken their eyes off the road in the autopilot drive for independence, They would not have let the loss of the major coastguard stations go without serious opposition during their first – and effective – administration.

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      • Another unresearched and unwarranted sideswipe at the SNP from Newsroom . . . . the edtorial policy on this blog gets more tabloid by the day.

        In fact there has been onging SNP opposition to the closures ever since they were announced, with Stuart McMillan making a keynote speech at the SNP’s Spring conference where he introduced two members of Clyde to conference.

        Since then:



        etc. etc.

        The SNP’s opposition to the closures has been pretty steadfast. However, as the Coastguard is a devolved matter and beyond their remit there was not much more they could do.

        (And you know what the answer is . . . . )

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        • ‘Pretty streadfast? You even doubt yourself SR!

          What you are pointing to is Mc McMillan doing what we was voted in to do.

          What you are NOT pointing to is any overwhelming opposition to this closure from the Scottish Government. What has NOT happened is Alex Salmond fighting for something that directly benefits and ensures the safety of the Scottish people who he would have you believe he cares about.

          Full marks to Mr McMillan, but he appears very much a lone voice on this amongst the SNP ranks. The rest seem to pay lip service to this and have not really got their teeth in. If the SNP put as much effort into issues like this as they did independence, then the arguement for independence doesn’t seem worth it – have I hit on something?

          Is this the tactic I’ve missed? Deliberately let the UK Government make ‘bad’ decisions without putting much effort into stopping them, to then try use it as a reason to be independent?

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          • Governing Scotland and dealing with non-reserved issues takes up a fair bit of time, as does tthe issue of the referendum. Devoting huge amounts of resources to fighting the coalition government on reserved matters over the next two years seems a bit pointless when a +ve vote for independence will remove all these issues at a stroke.

            Then if the CG is a shambles you can berate the Scottish government. Until that time this is just cheap political point scoring.

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  1. The lack of local knowledge is not new. With an area like that to cover it is dangerous to expect the people miles away to have the local knowledge.

    You often hear calls for assistance for an emergency situation quoting a name obviously got off the maps on the computer but the name will be so obscure that only someone with very good knowledge of the area will recognise it. There can be someone much closer who is completely unaware that they could help.

    It happens with all large organisations, Traffic Scotland will sometimes put a location of a road closure on the VMS even though it will be unknown to the majority of users of the road.

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  2. From Keith Brown: “At present Scotland will be the first area to lose stations and stations will be shut before the system has been robustly tested.

    “We should not be the guinea pig for such a potentially dangerous experiment.”

    Shades of the Poll Tax!

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        • Working down a mine for a couple of days – playing catch up as fast as possible.
          Now this is interesting. Thanks.
          Gesture politics, most likely – because it’s too little and far too late.
          Staff have gone, morale is low, skills and knowledge are already lost.

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          • Mr Brown “We should not be the guinea pig for such a potentially dangerous experiment.”

            Go back to 1999 when the Oban and Pentland stations were about to close; the MCA had just introduced their “Integrated Coastguard Communication System (ICCS) [which] introduces digital control technology which provides the flexibility within HMCG’s communications infrastructure to allow co-ordination centres to support each other during major incidents and high search and rescue (SAR) activity periods, and at quieter times to allow staff to undertake SAR prevention, safety education tasks and training.” [and reduce the headcount.]

            The GMB union hurled some quite serious abuse at the MCA Operations Director (Asbury) about, inter alia, the MCA’s dependence on technology. The MCA were stung into defending the ICCS system by, in an unguarded moment, implying that the public telephone network could be used as backup. Those used to conditions in the North were speechless. But the ICCS was crucial to ALL the MCA’s plans and is the means by which the MCA were to release manpower to conduct “education and prevention (at quieter times)”.

            The data that circulates these days with AIS and satellite communications will have increased the “bandwidth” beyond that envisaged in 1999. Education and prevention was a crucial requirement because of an increasing death/casualty toll at sea and emphasized to Maurice Storey, the MCA’s CEO, every time he met Gwyneth Dunwoody then chair of the Transport Committee during Storey’s annual battles with her when his accounts were reviewed. She was convinced that Storey’s faith in an IT system was misplaced.

            The responsibility for reducing the casualty rate fell on the Coast Guard side of the MCA’s organisation.

            The experiment that Mr Brown seems to have just woken up to, has been ongoing for at least the last 13 years. It is probably a “success” and you can thank Gwyneth Dunwoody’s persistence for that although I doubt that any of the preventative measures envisaged in 1999 now occur other than by the RNLI, particularly, and the RYA.

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          • It’s a pity Gwyneth Dunwoody died so suddenly, as she was a smart operator who had the respect of most people, and was a tough, effective and fiercely independent chair of the Westminster Transport Commitee – to the extent that Tony Blair tried (sneakily and unsuccessfully) to have her removed from that post. Phoning her office one lunchtime to flag the destruction of through train services between Glasgow and southwest England – because the transport minister, a Glasgow MP, was far more interested in his career than rocking the New Labour boat – I was surprised and impressed to find myself being interrogated, politely but very firmly, by Gwyneth herself.
            Would that there was someone like her in Holyrood to shake SPT by the throat and get her fellow parliamentarians to wake up to the realities of the growing Kilcreggan ferry service scandal.

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  3. Barmore 2
    There was nothing wrong with the Community Charge (correct name).
    Hopefully you will tell the users of the correct reason why the Community Charge was first started in Scotland.

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  4. The MCA threw away “local knowledge” when they closed Oban station.. all the promised liaison and local visits every year never happened.
    Clyde officers were never interested in coming to Oban, in learning Argyll’s coast, they did not participate in the pre-closure training. A couple of Oban SAR officers went there, but that was barely enough to explain a few crucial names.
    The Chief Coastguard then later admitted his mistake in closing Oban, but actually few serious incidents have actually happened as a result.
    Anyone who listens in to radio traffic can only cringe at the discourse.. but as long as folks are saved, there really is little arguement.
    Belfast has always been well involved in the Argyll maritime community, probably a lot more than Clyde ever was before.

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