Any sudden death is inevitably a tragedy. For the family it means heartache and grief for a lost child, parent, spouse, sibling, cousin. For a community it can be the loss of a friend, a neighbour, a supporter of local societies and charities. For a business it can be the loss of a key contributor, perhaps even a leader and it could even risk the livelihoods of employees who are dependent on the continued security and success of the company.
When a life is lost at sea it sends a shiver down the spine of the maritime community. Those who make their living at sea know there are risks. Experienced leisure users like divers, yachters, surfers, sea canoeists will usually be aware of the dangers and take precautions. Those who use our coasts less regularly, summer swimmers, cliff walkers, marsh hikers, those who play with inflatables off the beach, may not always be aware of the risks they take. But it’s ok, because on most beaches there are lifeguards. And inshore rescue. And offshore lifeboats. And coastguards. And helicopters. Between them, these crucially important people keep us all safe and rescue us when we’re in peril.
But not always. Recently a diving party got into difficulties off the east coast of England. Despite the efforts of coastguards, lifeboats and a helicopter, a diver drowned. There will be an Inquiry, of course, and it would be wholly wrong to try to anticipate the outcome or ascribe blame prematurely. Meanwhile everyone involved with the coastguard would send their deepest sympathies to the family and friends of the deceased.
But it is important that we understand the current issues in our maritime safety, and ensure the Inquiry poses the right questions to be addressed.
Firstly we have to acknowledge that the vast majority of the people involved in coastal rescue are volunteers. They operate local inshore craft for the Coastguard and they man lifeboats, which are bought and run by charitable donations. Most lifeboats are run by the RNLI and others are independent. The Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA) controls the Coastguard service, using Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) with experienced, trained and qualified employees. Their job is to receive the emergency call, either on a special radio frequency from a vessel at sea, or by a 999 call which, like the other emergency services, is directed to the nearest MRCC depending on the geographic origin of the call.
The MRCCs have responsibility for stretches of coastline around the country. They assess the emergency and decide how to respond. Where is the incident? Are we sure exactly where it is? Is it a fixed point or could it be drifting? Quickly or slowly? When was the incident reported? Where will it be in the next 20/30/60 minutes? What local resources are required? A lifeboat? Which one(s) should be launched? A marsh, cliff or inshore rescue team? Which is closest to the site? If it’s a cliff fall, is it easier to reach potential casualties by land, air or sea? What roads pass nearby? A helicopter? Will it arrive in time to be of assistance? These decisions require detailed local knowledge, of the coastline, tides, currents, bays, inlets, islands, offshore reefs, lighthouses, wrecks and hundreds of other variables that are particular to their stretch of coastline.
By highlighting that the majority of maritime life savers are volunteers, equipped by charitable donations, I do not intend to belittle their contribution one bit. Far from it. These people are experienced, trained and qualified every bit as much as their employed counterparts in the MRCCs. My point is only that, in a long recession, where the government response is limited to austerity, the only savings to be made are amongst the employees in the MRCCs, along with their buildings and equipment. So the MCA has agreed with its political bosses at the Department for Transport (DfT) to undertake a reorganisation of its services. The MRCCs are being reduced by 50%. Think about that for a moment. The critical decisions made about how to respond to an emergency incident around our coast will, in future, be made by someone who has twice the coastline to look after. Twice the number of bays, inlets, lighthouses, reefs, wrecks, tides, currents, and so on. And twice the number of rescue teams to consider: their speciality, exact location, equipment, response time, distances to incidents along twice the coastline. You get my …. drift?
The MCA has recognised this as a risk and a weakness in their overall plan. So they have learned from coastal rescue agencies in other countries and are building a database of local knowledge. After all, there’s nothing a human knows that you cannot put into a computer, right? And computers are smart enough to work with an infinite number of variables, so it can easily replicate the decisions a human would make, without forgetting a critical element and without miscalculating the travel time from resource (x) to location (y), being altered by current (z). Right?
Well, theoretically yes, of course. After all, computers take spacecraft to the moon and even to distant planets, and we’re not talking about any more variables than that, for sure. So when the MRCCs close, it’ll be ok because they’ll have the benefit of the new local knowledge database, won’t they? Sadly, no. The MRCCs have been closing for a year now, starting with Clyde and continuing with Forth, then Yarmouth in April this year. Further closures are planned for Portland, Brixham, Liverpool, Thames, Solent and finally Swansea, due to close in March 2015. But the MCA has not finished compiling the data for the new system, let alone built the enquiry process or tested it. It cannot say when it will be ready for operational use.
So, how is the MCA compensating for the loss of local knowledge on the closure of the MRCCs? Well they hope to transfer team members from a closed station to one that will take over its area of responsibility. But they are many miles apart, of course, and very few have agreed to make a permanent move. Besides, you have to have that knowledge available on every shift and you couldn’t expect 4 or 5 people to move, surely? In fact very few have moved, so there is certainly NOT local knowledge for the whole area, on shift at all times. There was a plan to ‘pair’ stations in advance of closure, so that the one to remain could learn the local knowledge over time ahead of the closure. But there have been no formal plans. No specification of what local knowledge is required, who will learn what, how, by when. Therefore, in effect, no control over ensuring this plan worked. In any event, the staff in the stations to close have voted with their feet and, not surprisingly, found new jobs rather than wait, like turkeys, for Christmas. The result is the early closure of stations when they become unviable.
In fact experienced personnel are not only leaving the stations that are to close. They are leaving the stations that will remain open. Why would they do this? Hearsay suggests they are disillusioned by the ill-thought changes. They can see pressure building up. They can see they are being asked to do an impossible job, pending the full operation of the MCA centre and the new systems. The manner the changes have been implemented, they feel, has ignored their experience and belittled their expert local knowledge. They no longer have faith in their leadership. They no longer have the motivation to work for insensitive, sometimes they feel, bullying management. They have met with government ministers and found them to be as ignorant of the issues as they are demeaning of their expert point of view. They feel either the government is being hoodwinked by the MCA about the operational realities of the changes, or the MCA is allowing itself to be bullied by a government department that wants change to save money and is disregarding the risks. Or, of course, they are the blind leading the blind. Either way, hundreds of years of experience is walking out the door, resulting in the early closure of MRCCs and understaffing of most centres around the country.
So, what are the key questions for the tragedy that struck the dive party out of Lowestoft recently? Having left port they headed North East about 17 miles, where they anchored to dive at a wreck. One diver got into trouble and tried to return to the surface very quickly, followed by his dive partner. The boat put out a Mayday call for assistance, which was routed to Humber MRCC, having taken over the area on the closure of Yarmouth MRCC just a couple of months earlier. 17 miles takes longer by sea than on land, of course. Humber MCCR called out Yarmouth & Gorleston RNLI lifeboat, which is about 8 miles north of Lowestoft. They also called out a helicopter in case a casualty needed rapid transfer to hospital. They did not call out an independent lifeboat based at Caister, another 6 miles north of Gorleston.
The Caister lifeboat first heard of the incident when they saw the Yarmouth & Gorleston RNLI boat coming up the coast past their station. They feel they should have been called. They feel they could have got to the dive boat up to 30 minutes faster than the RNLI boat. Caister has a faster lifeboat than the RLNI. The position of the dive boat clearly was at least as close to Caister as to Gorleston, probably quite a lot closer.
Why did Humber not call out Caister? Is it because, as has been suggested by Caister crew and some local politicians, the Coastguard prefers to use the RNLI and so just ignored Caister? Did the crew of shift at Humber not know about Caister? Were they unsure of the relative positions of Gorelston and Caister to the reported position of the dive boat? Did they not know the relative speeds of the two lifeboats? Was there a former Yarmouth MRCC team member on shift at Humber? Had the Humber team completed any ‘pairing’ activity to learn the local knowledge in their new area of responsibility, which covers from the Wash to Thames? If not, did understaffing play a part in preventing this critical knowledge being transferred to Humber? Is it reasonable to expect any human to learn double the local knowledge, and use it effectively in an emergency situation? Was the shift at Humber fully staffed when this incident occurred? Would the incident have been handled differently if the Yarmouth MRCC was still open, as it should have been?
There will be other questions for the Inquiry, and it would be entirely wrong to speculate whether, in this case, a life could have been saved. But what we do know is this:
- The MCA does not have an operational system to replace local knowledge, as they plan to have.
- Yarmouth would still have been open, if the method of implementing the changes had not caused the early departure of so many team members there.
The larger questions, which need to be addressed by our politicians, seem to be these:
- Why are MRCCs being closed before the local knowledge system has been tested and implemented successfully?
- Why was there no clear plan for the training objectives of the ‘pairing’ arrangements, with clear risk assessments before closure?
- Why was such dissatisfaction generated with the MCCR teams, both closing and remaining open, resulting in a haemorrhage of experienced staff and forcing the early closure of MCCRs?
- When the loss of staff was clearly going to provide operational risks, why was no action taken to try to retain the staff until closure?
The Coastguard_SOS campaign has argued from the beginning that the MCA plan did not take account of the critical importance of local knowledge. The campaign feared it would only be a matter of time before lives were put at risk by the closure programme, with no proper facility to compensate for the enlarged coastal responsibilities and the doubling of local knowledge required. The Shipping Minister, Mike Penning, in charge at the time of the announcement of the closures made a statement in the Houses of Parliament that not one MRCC would close until the new HQ and the new communications were tested and fully robust and ready for operational purposes. They broke that promise. The DfT and MCA have promised the Transport Select Committee since that no MRCC would close until new systems had been tested and implemented. They broke that promise too.
The amount of money being saved is very small, not even reaching £10m a year in terms of reduced running costs. Against the challenges of the recent economy, it is peanuts. If new systems and facilities at a centralised point were shown to be effective, and MRCC officers confirmed they felt confident about their enlarged geographic responsibilities, no one could argue with even such a small saving being made. But when the systems don’t even exist yet, and the MCA headquarters is not fully functional, you have to ask why it is so essential to close the MRCCs so quickly, making such a tiny saving, yet with a hugely amplified risk to maritime users?
Written by Tim Douglas