Strains visible across UK coastguard service

With the Department for Transport and the Maritime and Coastal Agency [MCA] driving a ‘modernisation’ of the coastguard service around the UK that has already cost Scotland Forth Coastguard and Clyde Coastguard, we have seen papers obtained under FoI that demonstrate the strains under which the  transitional service is now operating. It is running at 12.7% below its currently required staffing capacity.

The House of Commons’ Transport Select Committee, in the two hearings it conducted into this matter, was concerned about the leaching away from the service of experienced staff.

Obviously, in the scale of the planned shrinkage of the service, staff would be lost. Indeed the reduction of staffing levels was central to the cost savings in the proposal – which is to install a communications network run from a single national incident coordination centre in Fareham in Hampshire, on the south coast of England.

The Transport Department [DfT] and the MCA assured the Transport Committee that staffing would reduce, much by voluntary movement and natural wastage over a three year period and that although there would be a loss of local knowledge with some of the departures, that would be taken care of by a database of place names that is to be introduced.

As we and others pointed out, it is hard to see quite how such a database would help a non-Gaelic speaker linking up the look of a place name in an unfamiliar language in an unfamiliar location. with its pronunciation coming over a mobile phone or on VHF by a mariner in distress. Such a person may or may not speak Gaelic, with neither eventuality a help.

The documents we have seen show that the leaching away of staff from the coastguard service has been much faster and deeper than the responsible planning authorities had envisaged.

With only two coastguard stations closed to date – both in Scotland [Forth and Clyde]  – 107 staff have already left the service. This is around three quarters of the total the MCA expected to have lost by the end of the programme of station closures.  Yet six more stations are still to close over that period: Portland, Liverpool, Brixham, Yarmouth, Swansea and Thames.

When the new national incident cooordination centre at Fareham in Hampshire comes onstream, with a luxuriously planned staff of around 96, the actual sea areas around the UK coasts will be run by the following Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centres [MRCCs], clockwise from the north east: Shetland; Aberdeen, Humber; Dover; Solent; Falmouth; Milford Haven; Holyhead; Belfast; Stornoway; and a small river facility at London, with a complement of 7, currently overstaffed by 2.

The FOI revelations on operating strengths

We have seen official MCA tables on the required capacities for all of the UK’s currently operational coastguard stations; and for the each of their actual staffing levels. These were obtained under Freedom of Information legislation, but not by us.

Our analyses on these figures shows the following situations in UK coastguard cover:

  • Scottish waters are running at just over 10% below capacity.
  • Entire UK east coast, including Shetland, is at just over 22% below capacity.
  • East coast of England is at just under 19% below capacity.
  • Entire UK west coast, including Belfast and Stornoway, is at 9% below capacity.
  • West coast of England and Wales is operating at 18% below capacity.
  • South coast of UK [and England] is at 11% below capacity.

The situation in Scotland

In Scotland, the plan had originally been to leave the entire coast, including the Orkney and Shetland Isles, in the care of a single Maritime Rescue and Coordination Centre at Aberdeen.

While some common sense and a lot of protest at the daftness of this brought a reprieve for the Shetland and Stornoway stations, the staffing situation in and for Scotland is not where it should be.

Each remaining coastguard station in the UK has a given complement of staff it is supposed to meet for normal operations.

The crucial Aberdeen station is actually the single station in the UK whose staffing is furthest below its set complement. It should have a total of 31 [10 Watch Assistants [CWA (O)]; 16 Watch Officers; 4 Watch Managers; and 1 Rescue Coordination Centre Manager].

It is 9.5 staff short of that complement, with only 2.5 instead of 10 Watch Assistants; and 14 rather than 16 Watch Officers.

While its formal complement is relatively generous, there will certainly be strains in managing its massive sea area which includes much of the North Sea oil and gas fields and now, additionally, the sea area formerly under the control of Forth Coastguard.

It is likely that the complement for Aberdeen was increased after the closure of Forth; and that the station has not yet come up to its new staffing levels. The problem here is that the station has immediately had to assume the added responsibility of the absorption of Forth’s sea area – but without, yet, the staff it needs to provide that cover without undue strain.

Concerns on this staffing position are heightened by the fact that the Coastguard station fourth furthest away from its complement is Shetland, which now too has added responsibilities it is working to embrace. Shetland is 5.43 staff below complement, with 6.57 Watch Officers where they should have 12.

Stornoway, slated to close but retained  – after substantial protest – to cover the busy and environmentally critically Minches, currently has almost two staff over its given complement. It has 1 extra Watch Manager, 0.97 extra Watch Officer and is down by 1 Watch Assistant.

Stornoway was recently tasked with additional responsibility, stretching south to Ardnamurchan Point, to take the northern part of the former Clyde Coastguard sea area from a foolishly overcommitted Belfast. It is possible that Stornoway’s staffing represents its total existing commitments and that its formal complement has not yet been revised upwards.

Then there is a puzzle over the staffing situation at Belfast, now responsible, as before, for all of the sea area of the coast of Northern Ireland and additionally  for much of the vast sea area formerly under Clyde Coastguard.

Belfast has a complement of 23 staff but is showing as overstaffed at 25.64 – with one extra Watch Manager’ 0.57 extra Watch Officer time; and 1.07 extra Watch Assistants.

Despite this apparently very healthy staffing situation, we are being told of evidence of a real staffing problem at Belfast.

The coastguard system works on two 12 hour watches in every 24 hours Staffing complements are set at double the minimum watch strength, plus a few – 23. Belfast is down as currently having 25.64.

A check was recently carried out on 53 watches out of 56 consecutive watches at Belfast. Of these 53 watches surveyed, only 9 reached the minimum level of 5 on watch; 28 recorded 4 on watch; and on 16 occasions there were only 3 on watch.

Even when there were apparently 3 staff on watch, the shift would start with only 2 and an extra coastguard would have to be called out at short notice – on occasion taking up to 2 hours to get into work.

Each watch keeper is allowed 1.5 hours break within their 12 hour watch.

With watches apparently operating below the minimum staffing level, this must mean that some watch keepers are going without breaks to support the service. Honourable as this is at an individual level, it is hardly an acceptable situation, raising concerns for Health and Safety and for personal well-being.

Easter is on the near horizon, with an increase to Medium of the risk assessment level, which should mean an extra person on watch at each station. How will this be possible?

The difficulty in meeting the minimum watch manning level squares with other stories we are hearing – that Belfast is struggling to answer phone calls from team members answering their pagers.

These responses need to be recorded so that the Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre [MRCC] can account for those attending an incident. Belfast appears to have trouble in mustering the watch staff to deal with the volume of phone traffic at the beginning of an incident.

The must means that data is not being kept up to date, presenting safety issues for Coastal Safely Teams and potentially lengthening the time before a Coastguard arrives at the scene of an incident.

The overall coastguard cover for Scottish Waters, from Belfast, Stornoway, Shetland and Aberdeen is running with 89.68 staff as opposed to the required complement of 100, therefore operating at just over 11% below capacity.

The situation on the east coast of England

On the English east coast, Yarmouth coastguard is to be closed and is now the second worst staffed station in the UK after Aberdeen, eight short of its complement. The station does not now have a full time Manager; it has 3 fewer Watch Officers than it should; and 5 fewer Coastguard Watch Assistants.

Because of this low staffing level, – Yarmouth was reduced to daylight hours operations only, with Humber tasked to provide night time cover for the Yarmouth sea area.

It would appear that Humber Coastguard has suffered continued communication failures since it assumed responsibility for night cover of the Yarmouth Coastguard area. Following this pattern of failure, Yarmouth Coastguard has been instructed to resume full time coordination duties until the communication problems have been fixed.

This is an embarrassment for the MCA which, with the DfT, ploughed on with the downgrading of Yarmouth, even though they were fully aware of Humber’s problems with communication links. The loss of communications by Humber had led to the East coast being left without cover for critical periods.

There are three stations on the English east coast, at Humber, Yarmouth and Thames. Two are to close, Yarmouth and Thames – and are all operating below complement.

  • We have seen above that Yarmouth, short of 8 staff,  is the second worst staffed station in the UK after Aberdeen.
  • Humber is down 3, with 1 extra Watch Manager, short on 3 Watch Officer and 1 Watch Assistant.
  • Thames is down 3.4, short of 1 Watch Manager, 2 Watch Officers and 0.4 of Watch Assistants.

This means that the east coast of England is operating with a total of 64.15 rather than 79 staff. This is 18.78% below capacity – and in a situation where:

  • the nearest station to the north is Aberdeen, already the second busiest and the worst staffed in the UK and already absorbing the former Forth coastguard’s sea area;
  • and the first southerly neighbour is Dover, the busiest station in the  UK and understaffed by 2.5 on its normal commitments.

The entire east coast of the UK – including Aberdeen and Shetland, is running with 103.23 staff against a required capacity of 133, therefore operating at just over 22% below capacity. This area overs the dangerous North Sea area, with the UK’s oil and gas industry and fast developing offshore major wind farm installations in locations down its length.

The situation on the west coast of England and Wales

On the English and Welsh west coast there are currently four coastguard stations, Liverpool, Holyhead, Milford Haven and Swansea. Two are to close – Liverpool and Swansea and all four are currently under their staffing complement.

  • Liverpool is 5 staff short – with two Watch Managers over complement and 7 Watch Officers under it, with 5 instead of the necessary 12. If Liverpool loses any more staff, it is likely also to be put on daytime hours operations only.
  • Holyhead is 3.9 below complement, 4 Watch Officers short, with 8 out of 12; and 0.1 Watch Assistant time over complement.
  • Milford Haven is 2 under complement, short of 5 Watch Officers but with 3 extra Watch Assistants.
  • Swansea is the station third furthest below its due complement – short of 6.5 staff: with 11 Watch Officers rather than 13; and 4.5 Watch Assistants instead of 9.

The west coast of England and Wales is running with 79 instead of the required complement of 96.4 staff, operating at 18% below capacity.

If you add Belfast and Stornoway to get the entire UK west coast picture, this complete coastline is running on 129.61 staff instead of 142.4, therefore operating at just under 9% below capacity.

The position on the south coast of England

With the choking maritime traffic through the English Channel and the presence of major naval ports, it is uncomfortable to see that all of the current Coastguard stations on this manic stretch of coastline are below their staffing complements.

There are currently five – at Dover, Solent, Portland, Brixham and Falmouth, with two – Portland and Brixham, to close and the new national Maritime Incident Coordination Centre at Fareham in Hampshire to come onstream at some point.

  • Dover is short by 2.5 in total – 2 down in Senior Watch Managers, 2 up on Watch Managers,
  • Solent is 2.26 down in total, with 13.74 Watch Officers rather than 16.
  • Portland is a total of 1.36 down, with 3.57 Coastguard Watch Assistants over complement and 4.93 Watch Officers fewer than its complement of 12.
  • Brixham is down by 4, 3.5 short on Watch Officers and 0.5 on Watch Assistants.
  • Falmouth, the most westerly, is 3 short in total, with 1 extra Watch Officer and 4 fewer Coastguard Watch assistants than required.

In total, the staffing levels in the south coast service are at 121.88, instead of the required complement of 137, operating at just over 11% under capacity.

The Coastguard Rescue Service [CRS]

Too little attention has been paid to the Coastguard Rescue Service to date, in terms of how that part of the overall coastguard service is being affected by the revision of the service.

These are the land-based coastguard staff, called out to search coastlines in the vicinity of reported incidents.

We have been given sight of a letter written by a serving Coastguard Rescue Officer – from which any reference to his station has been removed to safeguard the officer from retribution.

The letter reads:

‘For the first time since joining the Coastguard service, I am seriously considering leaving the service. Morale in the CRS is the lowest I can remember, with the widely-held view that MCA management neither care about us nor see a need to communicate with us about the future direction of the Coastguard.

‘I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of how the Future Coastguard programme will work and how it will affect the CRS. I don’t know who will call me out, manage me at incidents or be responsible for my safety. All I hear are vague platitudes about the service being ‘improved’ and ‘enhanced’, although I cannot see how this can happen with fewer stations, fewer full-time Coastguards and a distinct possibility that we will be managed by people who have never set foot in our area, let alone know our patch.

‘It is the safety element that is causing me the greatest concern. At present, if I am called out to conduct a search in the early hours, I know I have colleagues watching over me who know me and my team-mates and who know the area. If I ask for backup, they will usually provide it in the knowledge that I am the man on the ground and I know what is happening.

‘The thought of a Coastguard in Fareham, Belfast, Scotland or anywhere else outside of our area being responsible for my safety while also running several other incidents spread over a wide area frankly terrifies me. I have heard from CROs in other areas who are already experiencing problems (and outright hostility in some cases) from having to deal with new management teams who are often under immense pressure themselves in making a new, untried system work.

‘I am only too aware of the numbers of full-time Coastguard staff who are leaving the service and am concerned that it will be the part-time staff like me that will be left to pick up the pieces when things go wrong. Increased loss of life, in my view, is inevitable and I am genuinely concerned that my team-mates and I will be less safe when we go out to conduct rescues.

‘No attempt has been made to reassure members of the CRS that the new system will be safe – possibly either because MCA management know that it will not, or because they have doubts and that admitting those doubts will be seen as a weakness. For whatever reason, the silence from Southampton is deafening and further proof of how the CRS is viewed by MCA management.

‘Like most CROs, I suspect, I have limits in what I am prepared to do for the Coastguard. I refuse to put my family at risk and so, should I feel that the risks become unacceptable, I will have no hesitation in resigning.

‘Being a member of a Coastguard rescue team is something I used to find extremely rewarding and I took great pride in my membership of the organisation. Recently, however, I find myself questioning how I am being treated; my attendance at training and incidents has decreased and even routine dealings with my full-time colleagues has become strained.

‘I know from discussions at training that I am not alone in feeling like this and I suspect several other team members are also thinking about leaving.’

The overall situation in the coastguard service has to raise questions about both the concept and the management of this radical revision of the maritime rescue and incident coordination service.

We have heard it described in a telling phrase that is worth borrowing: ‘It’s like taking the jack away before putting the wheel back on the car.’

Note: We have asked the MCA to confirm or correct that the MRCC staffing tables we have received and have copied to them are current to February 2013; and we have asked for a note of any changes to those figures since the period covered by the the tables. We have also lodged an FOI at the Department for Transport for the Belfast MRCC watch manning figures for 2013 to now.

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11 Responses to Strains visible across UK coastguard service

  1. As my name suggests, I am a serving coastguard based in one of the MRCC’s on the west coast. The above account, whilst very worrying, is actually even worse. Since this account has been produced I know that even more operations staff have left, and that ‘staffing levels’ are pertaining to the ‘headcount’ of staff on a particular station. What the above, very good account, doesnt reveal is that many of these staff included in those ‘headcounts’ are seconded for short and predominantly longterm ‘secondments’ to other sectors of the Coastguard Service, be that to the training school, headquarters, or other divisions within the MCA. So the reality is actually considerably much worse, with fewer than stated staff available for watch keeping duties and search and rescue co-ordination. And its getting worse each week with more and more people leaving in order to secure a continuation of income for their families.
    Yet we hear nothing from our ‘managers’ in headquarters in Southampton. I think they call it ‘ostrich syndrome’? Bury your head in the sand and hope the problem goes away-for it appears no-one is doing anything about it, and so it gets worse. Maybe, this is what they wanted, but very shortly there will be NO coastguard service.

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  2. Lowry – i’m not sure about the coastguard but there will no changes with the RNLI i’m sure, the Republic of Ireland still have them

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    • That is not at all surprising. In the current situation, If they were not trying to recruit they would find that hard to explain.
      The immediate issue is why they have lost the staff they had?

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    • The MCA are haemorhagging staff because they’ve been treated like mushrooms, of course they’re trying to recruit! I don’t know what MCA thought would happen, but people on this end of the payscale don’t typically up sticks at the request of distant and out-of-touch management to move 500 miles to a high cost-of-living area, they find other jobs instead.

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  3. They can recruit all they like ; there is no getting away from ‘the fact that it takes a minimum of a year to formally train a Watch Officer. Then add on some years for experience and local knowledge!

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  4. We will have to wait until a few dozen people drown needlessly before these clowns will realise their cost cutting ways are in error – or maybe not even then, unless some yacht with a crew of Conservative MP’s goes down.

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