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I have spoken at length to Coastguard staff about these proposals and am left very concerned about the whole thing. Many critical details have not been thought through and in my mind there is a very real risk that, not only will the measures not lead to the desired cost savings, but more importantly safety of lives at sea and around the coast will be significantly diminished.
At it’s heart, the proposed new system assumes that the role of coordinating maritime rescues can be done from anywhere. The idea is that the detailed local knowledge of each area will no longer be required to lie with the highest level of coordinating coastguard operator. Instead, it is assumed that the local knowledge of rescue forces ‘on the ground’ (CG rescue teams, RNLI, helicopter, etc) alone will be sufficient.
So, under the new system, the idea is that the casualty reports their situation and lat/long to the centralised CG station. The CG then use a database to identify the nearest ‘rescue asset’ on the ground, and call them up. With the exception of helicopter crew, this person will be a volunteer and it usually takes around ten minutes to establish contact with these people through pagers or mobile phones. This person will then attempt to use their own local knowledge to coordinate the rescue, using a mobile phone, in the back of their car.
There are many flaws with this plan. Firstly, it places much greater reliance on the volunteer force and fundamentally changes their role. Yet nobody asked these people if they will continue to volunteer on this basis! Secondly, if the volunteer initially tasked with coordinating the rescue turns out to have been a poor choice (because the database may not be accurate enough, or the mayday may have been lacking in enough detail) then another shout has to go out to another volunteer, with another delay. Thirdly, if the mayday does not contain a lat/long, or if those numbers are in any way mistranscribed, the whole system falls apart. In many instances, the centralised CG operator is unlikely to be able to deal with a reference to a place name. Where I live, most of the place names have unusual spellings as they are anglicised Gaelic, and the way they are pronounced sometimes seems to bear little relation to how they are written. The same place may even have three different spellings, all apparently legitimate. And as if that weren’t enough, there are plenty of names which are colloquial and do not appear on any chart. Ask a local where to find a place by its charted name and much of the time they won’t know what you’re talking about. Finally, many of these confusing names are repeated across the area. There are probably hundreds of ‘Dubh Sgeirs’ dotted about the West Coast, not to mention all the Pabbays, Bernerays, Sandays, etc. I do not believe a computer database will be able to succesfully handle this sort of information. The head of the MCA, Admiral Massey, says that Google Earth will be used to help with these situations. Does that inspire confidence in you?
The second aspect is the cost savings themsevles. I am personally quite sceptical that these will be achieved. The regional fire control system was supposed to achieve the same thing but it failed miserably, and has just been scrapped, costing the taxpayer over £400m on a completely wasted project. The MCA’s plans rely on the same underlying thinking- that coordination can be done centrally, and that it can be done cheaper. Details have emerged through FOI requests which are very telling: the Aberdeen CG station, which is to be kept, costs more to operate than the other four Scottish stations put together. This is because the building is rented, whereas the others are owned by the MCA. Furthermore, Aberdeen have a problem with staff turnover as the oil industry is more lucrative and pays much better than the £16k that a CG operator gets. This is not a problem out on the island stations where such jobs are highly valued. Another problem is that the relatively recent installation at Falmouth which handles EPIRB traffic from all over the world is to be relocated to the Southampton station- what will the cost of this be?
On a final point, the proposed new system does not explain how the VHF network will function in future. Will it be one big national network? If so, will we all have to keep off ch16 every time an incident is in progress anywhere in the country? Will there be sufficient airspace for weather broadcasts (the rumours are that these will probably be cut anyway!)? If not one national network, then what size will the VHF areas be? There are many other unanswered questions raised by the proposals, but one thing is clear- it has not been fully thought through. It is not about saving lives. It is about saving money.