Campaigners who oppose the closure of UK stations have now renewed calls for Government plans to be scrapped before a tragedy occurs.
This follows the recent announcements that the Yarmouth Coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre [MRCC] is to be downgraded to daylight hours operations only – and the publishing of 2012 RNLI call out figures.
Announcing the downgrading of the Yarmouth station, the Maritime Coastguard Agency [MCA] admit that this has been forced because of high numbers of staff leaving the service ahead of the formal closure of this station on 1st May.
The downgrading of the station for its last months in service means that Humber Coastguard will assume nighttime responsibility for the stretch of coastline from the Scottish / English border to Southwold. This is around two thirds of the entire east coast of England.
Campaigners argue that the safety of coast users – including Volunteer RNLI crews and Coastguard rescue officers – is being put at risk because of mismanagement of the closure plans by successive Transport Ministers and by Senior MCA bosses.
Speaking on behalf of the National Coastguard SOS Campaign group, Dennis O’Connor says: ‘We have repeatedly warned of the dangers of the Coastguard service haemorrhaging experienced staff.
‘This move by the MCA and Department for Transport is being made out of desperation because they have failed to prove to staff that the future Coastguard plan is safe and workable.
‘The clear indications are that the MCA will continue to lose staff at an alarming rate which will impact on the ability of HM Coastguard to be able to react to distress calls in an effective and timely manner.’
Dennis O’Connor says that it is important to remember that each call-out to which an RNLI lifeboat launches in response is an incident coordinated and monitored by HM Coastguard, from the maritime rescue coordination centres around the UK coast, with both organisations dedicated to sea safety
Dennis O’Connor points out that the closure of these stations will result in the loss of essential local knowledge, with the UK facing a scenario where the lives of RNLI crews and Coastguard rescue teams are put in danger as a result of mistakes made by a remote centralised call centre.
In December the Transport Select Committee (TSC), under its Chair, Louise Ellman MP, published the report into their second inquiry relating to the government’s coastguard station closure plan.
The report highlighted serious concerns about the number of staff leaving the service and criticised the MCA and successive Transport Ministers for breeding concern amongst officers.
Mr O’Connor now says that there is no evidence to suggest that either the Government or the MCA have addressed the concerns of the TSC – and that, instead, have set course to speed up the station closure process, despite overwhelming opposition from maritime industry experts.
He comments that: ‘The UK Shipping Minister; Stephen Hammond MP, has failed to get to grips with his portfolio and this has compounded the growing problem of officers leaving.
‘Quite simply, they have no faith in the safety of future operations once coordination of incidents is passed to a centralised UK call centre’.
Yarmouth Coastguard station is the third station to be closed by government dictat in just 29 weeks – following Forth, the first and then Clyde.
Yarnouth will be followed by the closure of stations at Brixham and Portland later in 2013.
Further stations in England and Wales are scheduled to close in 2014.
Guinea pig Scotland
With the two central belt stations in Scotland already closed, campaigners insist that it is too early to assume that the safety of coast users has not been put at risk.
Dennis O’Connor says: ‘We believe that the Government have significantly increased the risk to those using the Scottish coast by the closure of the two stations there.
‘Scotland has been used as a test bed for the closure programme. It is unacceptable that risks should have been taken by the closure of two Scottish stations in favour of an untested alternative plan’.
The media call with nothing to show
The campaign group have challenged Sir Alan Massey, CEO of the Maritime Coastguard Agency and the UK Shipping Minister to provide proof that the closure of UK Coastguard rescue coordination centres is a safe way to proceed.
The Shipping Minister has refused several attempts by the group to meet with him; and neither he nor Sir Alan Massey have provided any evidence which would alter campaigners opinion that the closure programme is dangerous.
The heart of the new system is the centralised call centre planned for Fareham in Hampshire, responsible for major incident coordination for all of the waters of the UK – and shrouded in controversy and mystery.
It emerged earlier this month that the Shipping Minister had arranged a media opportunity at the building in Fareham. This turned out to be something of a pantomime occasion.
A very small delegation of media were present but were denied entry into the building and were left outside to await the arrival of the Minister.
When Mr Hammond arrived the media delegation were told to limit their questions to just two each – and were still refused entry to the building.
Campaigners – with, on this and earlier evidence, some reason and supported by a similar perspective from the Transport Select Committee report – feel that Mr Hammond is ill prepared to deal with his portfolio.
They, again reasonably, question why the media were barred from entering the Fareham building.
Dennis O’Connor supplies the only logical explanation by asking if the building is being hidden from the eyes of the media because it is nowhere near ready and has not been staffed?
When For Argyll talked to Sir Alan Massey at the time of the closure of Clyde Coastguard and enquired about what was already in the Fareham building, his discomfort was obvious and there was no information to be had that was specific to the planned function of the centre.
Stations are already being closed despite Government assurances that none would close until the new system was installed and had been rigorously tested for its robustness in crisis operations.
Mr O’Connor says: ‘Coastguard campaigners have always stated that genuine modernisation plans which would guarantee a stronger and more robust service would be welcomed. However, despite the Shipping Minister and Sir Alan Massey giving assurances that this will be the case, they have failed to provide any evidence to back up their claims.
‘This is unacceptable and serves only to underline the growing concern amongst campaigners that the Government has decided which stations will close purely on a political basis and without operational reasoning’.