Coastguard NMOC2

The fantasy future coastguard service

The MCA put out a press release this week about the opening of the new call centre, optimistically called a National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC).

The photograph is taken from the press release and shows the brand spanking new high tech equipment that is there, along with several people sitting at desks. Sad to say that of the 47 Coastguard officers, 23 are unqualified. That means 50% of the personnel do not have the training required and would not have the expertise to co-ordinate rescue operations. And don’t forget Coastguards operate 24 hours a day and 7 days a week. It is also a fact that it takes 2 years training to become qualified. Heaven help us all if anything goes wrong on their shifts! No disrespect to them – the MCA is completely and utterly to blame for this total shambles. Not forgetting the incompetent Department for Transport of course.

Coastguard cracks

The real future coastguard service

This post is to express the disappointment felt for Mark Rodaway who has transferred from the wonderful and well respected Portland Marine Rescue & Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) to become national maritime operations commander at the NMOC. Mark Rodaway has rubbished the local knowledge that has allowed Portland MRCC, and, indeed, all the MRCCs, to carry out successful rescues throughout the years they have been protecting and saving our souls.

Local knowledge is what has saved so very many lives all around these dangerous coastlines of our isles – for so very many years.

And just to allay any fears you may have, the press release went on to say the NMOC was scheduled to become fully operational by the end of 2015. That’s okay then!


embedThis is just a brief post to tell you that we have asked MPs on several occasions whether or not they agree with the Coastguard MRCC closures and the majority still hasn’t answered. You will find the complete list on the page entitled ‘What your MP thinks‘.

We are going to ask them again this week and see whether or not they will even bother to respond – those that haven’t in the past. It is very worrying that the very people we vote into the Houses of Parliament seem not to care about our concerns and those of coastguards and maritime specialists who know what they are talking about.

The trouble is, this Coalition Government always puts profits before people, favours to friends before safety for the public and tells blatant lies. I know that I cannot be prosecuted for libel because I am telling the truth, sadly the men in charge do not have the same moral stance that most of us have.

The stance of the MPs who have Coastal constituencies is of paramount importance to the future of the Coastguard and the future of our children.  Here is a list of those who would be responsible should any tragedies occur in the future.

MPs who have supported the closures of the MRCCs 
Norman Baker                       LibDem              Lewes                              
Therese Coffey                     Con                    Suffolk Coastal
Stephen Crabbe                    Con                    Preseli Pembrokeshire   
David Davies                        Con                    Monmouth
Caroline Dinenage                Con                   Gosport 
George Eustice                    Con                    Camborne and Redruth
Liam Fox                              Con                    North Somerset 
Lorraine Fullbrook                Con                    South Ribble 
Roger Gale                           Con                    North Thanet 
Robert Goodwill                    Con                    Scarborough and Whitby 
Nick Harvey                         LibDem              North Devon 
Bernard Jenkin                     Con                    Harwich and North Essex 
David Jones                         Con                    Clwyd West  
Simon Kirby                          Con                    Brighton, Kemptown 
Oliver Letwin                         Con                    West Dorset 
Brandon Lewis                      Con                    Great Yarmouth 
Paul Maynard                       Con                    Blackpool North and Cleveleys
David Morris                         Con                    Morecambe and Lunesdale
Keith Simpson                      Con                    Broadland 
Desmond Swayne                Con                    New Forest West 
Mike Weatherley                  Con                    Hove  

You will see from the above list that there is a definite pattern in the parties of those voting for the closures. Remember, these MPs are all responsible for coastal constituencies, all are responsible for your safety at sea and on the coast. This is not tarring all Conservatives with the same brush, some have voted against the closures – those that care more for their constituents than just following their leader.

Also remember that there is a General Election coming up and I would never vote for an MP who is willing to gamble with the safety of those who vote him or her into office.

We will let you know as soon as we hear from all those who have not bothered to respond before. We will keep on asking them until they give us an answer – it’s as simple as that.

Written by Lynne Gray


coastguard wall of shameOn the 18th May, the Sunday Express led its front page with the heading -

Exclusive: Government is ‘gambling with public safety’ as rookies man Coastguard stations.

We, at Coastguard_SOS, are very grateful to Caroline Wheeler and The Sunday Express for bringing these horrendous facts and figures right out into the public domain. And we’ve seen a significant increase in our numbers of supporters since – thank you.

But the facts remain that the Department for Transport and the grey suits at the MCA continue to ignore all warnings, all findings from the Transport Select Committee and all concerns from the Unions and the actual Coastguard guys and girls who are in the Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres (MRCCs).

We all know the whole exercise started because of a coalition government cost cutting exercise. Now how does the Transport for Department save £7.5m? Oh yes, first we’ll cut the four special tugs that go around our isles keeping us safe from any spills and disasters and then what?  Of course, we have that big white elephant in Hampshire that was built for a national HQ for the fire service but never used, because it was proven to be not fit for purpose, yes, we can utilise that for something – now let’s think . . . .

Moc-in-progressXXSo Mike Penning, the then Transport Minister, decided to save money by closing fifty per cent of the MRCCs and making a headquarters for the MCA landlubbers at the folly in Fareham. Not fit for purpose for the fire service with postal codes & road/town/city names but apparently fine for the Coastguards with tidal currents, no landmarks and, well, we’ve said all this before!

With no internal communication channels used in the proper manner, the coastguard personnel were treated like mushrooms; kept in the dark and fed bs about any plans. Morale was not good and dropped even further when they were given a gagging order. Although there was a glimmer of hope when Mike Penning stated that not one MRCC would close until the new HQ was up and running – phew!

Paying respect at the closing of Clyde MRCC

Paying respect at the closing of Clyde MRCC

It was a lie, the first of so many  . . .  they have now closed three of the centres – Forth, Clyde and Yarmouth. Already it’s been shown how dangerous this has been, but that’s another story . . .

The staffing levels at the centres have gone down and way past the acceptable levels required. By using the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), the Sunday Express and Coastguard_SOS are able to access the actual numbers and they are shocking, just shocking. But nobody cares. Mike Penning has been replaced by Stephen Hammond, who has amply illustrated how very much the same as Mr Penning he is and how minute is his knowledge of the Coastguard and their tasks and responsibilities. It takes two years to train someone to be a Coastguard Officer in the MRCCs but because so many of the experienced personnel have left, they are putting newbies on duty, who just do not have the Coastguard training nor the all important and critical local knowledge.

Coastguard_SOS is made up of people who are passionate about the proper running and future of the Coastguard service. The clever and committed CJ is one of those people – he has given us the following tables (and he produced the wall of shame) so that you may see for yourself how bad it is . . .








































I can visualise Sir Alan Massey, the head of the MCA, turning and saying to me . . . . .

Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.


Written by Lynne Gray

The last blog was “House of Cards” which covered the revelations of how all HM Coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC’s) were suffering from a Staffing Crisis as the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) failed to ensure that shifts were meeting the minimum Risk Assessed safe staff levels.

This blog looks a the latest information released to the Coastguard SOS campaign group from the MCA and features the number of incidents each station has had to deal with each month throughout 2013.

The basic data is as follows:


As you can see JUNE was extremely with Humber the busiest by far, followed by Falmouth (as expected considering the worldwide scope), but by far the clearest message is the scale of incidents which are occurring at closing MRCC’s

A major question to be asked

“Why can’t the MCA attribute 566 incidents to a particular MRCC” – Do they not keep strict records of all incidents? Whatever the reason, the MCA failed to explain and therefore leave themselves open to criticism.

Bearing in mind incidents are slightly down for 2013, the general trend is up an two additional influences to increases will be:
a) Increased Severe Weather events (like the UK is experiencing now) or good weather like last summer were the seasonal figures were up.

b) Economic climate forcing cost cutting in Maritime maintenance & safety checks by vessel owners/operators (something which has been by MCA Inspectors).


To understand incident figures of last year, it helps to break them down to shift averages



If you consider each shift is 12hrs & Solent were averaging nearly 7 per shift – that is a lot of work.

OK some maybe short duration incidents but they will even out with some of the ones that last hours.

The FOI incident data table clearly demonstrates that some maritime rescue coordination centres (MRCC’s) earmarked for closures deal with significantly higher incident rates than others.

Incident rates at Belfast, Aberdeen and Humber Coastguard would not be as high if they had not taken over responsibility for additional areas following the closure of stations at Clyde, Forth and Yarmouth respectively.

We believe that the data indicates strongly that the centralised National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) will not

RED MRCC's set to be closed

RED MRCC’s set to be closed

offer the resilience that Ministers have promised through different periods because following the closure of Solent, Portland and Brixham potentially there will be around 8oo plus additional incidents that it would have to deal with just along the South coast.

This chart clearly demonstrates that closures will overload the new NMOC system IF it works.

We believe that this is the strongest evidence yet that closure plan will not work without compromising the safety of those visiting or using the coast for recreational or commercial purposes.


The original 19 MRCC’s coped independently with incidents in their respective operational areas has produced an excellent track record of dealing with all manner of situations.

Yet, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency has clearly miscalculated extremely important aspects of the proven system, it has miscalculated the load that each MRCC carried.

Removing MRCC’s has skewed the load distribution and cracks are appearing; any more closures will further undermine the system foundations.


Clearly, something must be done to avert a system failure with tragic consequences.

We urge every reader of this blog to contact their MP & ask them to stop further closures of MRCC’s.

See how you can help here:


CoastalJoe 2014                              (all images & data © copyright of Coastguard SOS campaign group)

Recently the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) was forced to release staffing figures for each Maritime Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (MRCC) under a Freedom of Information request (FOI) by the Coastguard SOS group.

As we feared, there’s a noticeable increase in failure by every MRCC to meet the minimum safe (agreed by Risk Assessment) number of watch officers on shifts.2013table

- Average failure rate has risen in 8 MRCCs & fallen in 7
- Humber average failure up by 10x and 54% rise on worst case.
- in 2012 there were 36 occasions stations reported ZERO failure on minimum staffing (not incl London)
- in 2013 there were 11 occasions stations reported ZERO failure on minimum staffing (not incl London)

In short, the MRCC staffing crisis we reported last year is deepening to a point of disaster!

The figures released are likely to be the “tip of the Iceberg” as the Coastguard SOS campaign group has received numerous reports that real staffing figures are being bolstered by Retired Watch Officers and Volunteer Coastal Rescue Team members being “Press ganged” onto MRCC watch shifts to mask true staffing.

There’s also some evidence that Watch Officers are being “flown” around the UK to help man shifts.

The MCA will point out that they are currently recruiting more staff and have taken on at least 20 staff since we highlighted the staffing crisis; however they fail to mention that on average it takes about 2 years for staff to be qualified to stand watch at an MRCC. New recruits will therefore probably qualify after 6 more MRCCs are shut!

Figures show many MRCC’s operating below safe staff levels coincided with the great summer weather that produced over a 30% rise in coastal incidents.

Only the professionalism of Coastguard Watch Officers prevented incidents from being a tragedy (as far as we can tell). The picture is the same during Christmas & New Year when the UK was battered by violent storms, flooding and high tides.

Again, whenever this issue was raised by the media; the MCA trotted out the trite worn out rebuff of “Understaffing and high incidents levels are mitigated by Pairing MRCCs with others” – any fool can see that if all MRCCs are understaffed and experiencing high incident levels across the country, then they won’t be any help to the next door MRCC –  as they are all struggling.

The MCA also sing the praise of the National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) in Fareham, which is supposed to provide the new networked systems, advanced software and a National management of all UK incidents.

It’s not open yet, plus it’s reported as being delayed. Until it does open there is no proof it works and there are no staff to man it yet.



MCA very kindly released a picture of the empty facility which may yet prove to be full of empty promises.NMOC-jan2014

IF the NMOC ever get running, how can we trust the MCA to verify that it meets requirements? How will it be proven fit for purpose?

The MCA have lost all credibility.


It’s a vicious cycle brought on entirely by MCA mismanagement – Staff were leaving because the MCA fail to listen and closed MRCCs before new system was in place; This created an explosive increase in pressure & workload which seems to have led more staff to leave or go sick.


As this blog was being made ready to publish, news broke that Brixham MRRC staff had received their Redundancy notices.

This confirms our suspicions that the Govt/MCA intend to carry on regardless!


Increased storm/severe weather events, increased incidents and a staffing crisis prove that public safety is being ignored.


The very real threat that 6 more MRCCs will close is a risk too far, any more pressure on those MRCC’s open today is likely to bring the whole lot down like a “House of Cards”.


This needs to stop now. We need positive action to prevent the crisis from deepening yet further because the finest Coastguard service in the world could end after 192 years.


The graphics below give a good idea of the extent of the Staffing CrisisKeyData2013-X


PLEASE take note of situation and write to your MP via



Demand an end to MRCC closures and ask for a public inquiry into MCA handling of changes to HM Coastguard service.


By CoastalJoe

Brixham CoastguardHad to post this. CJ sent it to Dennis and myself as a rough draft but I thought it should be put out there immediately! He’s really on the ball.

Our Coastguard was a great sight to see,
Nearly 200 years of saving lives around our sea,
Now they’ve gone & changed the goal,
To one of a computerised role,
With experienced staff thrown on the dole,
Making the service better they say,
With taxpayers having 15 pence less to pay,
A radical scheme all based on a theory,
That’s never been tried or subject to query,
All is not yet lost as those that are true,
With facts, information and graphics too,
Battle the closures in the name of the Coastguard SOS crew,
We carry this fight with honour and right
Till the day that ministers & MCA will rue.

Coastguard SOS logoThere has been so much put out this month, it just beggars belief that the blinkered suits at the MCA HQ and the nauseating numpties in the Department for Transport are still arrogantly going ahead with closing the MRCC stations around our coasts.

Now they have sent redundancy notices to the marvellous team at Brixham MRCC. WHY???? Have they ever even looked at a map of the British Isles?  Do they not know how much local knowledge is necessary to operate in a top-level manner? Are all civil servants and ministers, square pegs in round holes?  ARGHHHHHHHHHHHH!

I am not going to go on, cos I can feel the temperature rising – I’ll save it up for the next post :-)

Thanks CJ, you’re a star.


Lynne Gray


The plan to ‘modernise’ HM Coastguard has been through a roller coaster of a ride over the last few years.

The original plan to axe ALL but 2 Maritime Rescue Co-Ordination Centres (MRCC) open 24hrs was widely condemned by everybody with any interest in Maritime safety.

A hasty compromise plan was produced and it came with assurances that key concerns would be addressed:Assuranceses.jpg

  • A phased reduction of MRCC’s after the new Maritime Operations Centre was up & running
  • The upgraded & integrated computer systems would be fully proven.
  • No MRCC would close until national system operationally proven.

Since the House of Commons announcement, 3 MRCC’s have closed:    Forth, Clyde and Gt. Yarmouth. Worst still, the UK Government has since announced closure dates for remaining MRCC’s without a guaranteed date for the MOC to begin testing.

Contrary to early opening claim for the MOC, delays in readiness have been announced.

The departure from the framework of changes set out by the Shipping Minister Mike Penning in November 2011, has not gone un-noticed by the Transport Select Committee (TSC) which openly rejected the original plan, this has prompted them to re-open their Inquiry into changes to HM Coastguard.

The Coastguard SOS successfully submitted evidence to the TSC which can be found here:

This evidence is a powerful statement of concern because it is based up HM Coastguard own reports, statistics, omissions and data.

The response to the TSC Inquiry report by the ministers & senior management at DfT/MCA has failed to address the majority of concerns raised.

In fact, prompted by the TSC Inquiry more information was released on how the new ‘Future Coastguard System’ will work (in theory – as until the system is proven, it’s all speculative), there has been a marked loss of experienced Coastguard watch officers at all MRCC’s including those not closing.

Staffing figures obtained from the MCA under a Freedom of Information request gives stark overview that ALL but one MRCC (London subMRCC) have operated shifts below the agreed safe Risk Assessed level

See RightKeyData-X4


The staffing figures continue to be worryingly.

Additional assurances by the MCA

say they are addressing the crisis

by recruiting more staff.

The problem is twofold

  1. Attracting people into an environment that is haemorrhaging staff, less than half positions advertised filled.
  2. It takes a minimum of two years to be watch qualified and trained by which time remaining axed MRCC’s will have been closed.

The recent storms that have swept the UK have demonstrated the scale of extreme weather events, so much so that fresh calls have been made by different organisations to stop the closure plan.

Indeed, the response to questions about the MRCC staffing crisis have been dismissed by various spokespersons for the MCA in typical statements such as quotes below:

“Currently, where a Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) is experiencing reduced staffing levels, established ‘pairing’ arrangements are used. This means each MRCC can be connected to at least one other MRCC that will provide mutual support.

“Under the future structure, the introduction of the ‘National Network’ as part of the modernisation of HM Coastguard will enable the National Maritime Operations Centre and all other centres to coordinate any incident around the UK coast, enabling workload and incidents to be managed nationally rather than locally as at present.”

Apart from the fact that ‘Pairing’ has been proven to be unworkable in the past (see TSC evidence), it only takes common sense to realise that ALL MRCC’s are understaffed (by their own admission) and that the Storms have affected all MRCC’s around the UK to the extent it is unlikely that any would be able to render assistance to each other via a ‘paired’ system or a national framework – if they worked.

Don’t take our word for it – have a good look at all the evidence submitted to the TSC.

MCA-cuts-Infographics-2Look out for further news of what’s happening,

keep an eye on


Whatever you think, there have been some massive changes to

HM Coastguard already

and  if you use the seas around the UK in a

boat, ship, canoe or anything,

the current and future situation should concern you.

Because it will be anything but plain sailing:


by CoastalJoe


Yarmouth coastguard deathMike Hillen recently wrote a good piece on Brandon Lewis, the obnoxious MP for Great Yarmouth.

The MP who failed to make a stand and fight against the closure of Yarmouth Coastguard rescue coordination centre. The same MP who sneeringly and arrogantly ignored repeated warnings against the closure of Yarmouth Coastguard.

The same MP who believed hollow assurance that his mate, the former Shipping Minister; Mike Penning MP spouted to MPs in Parliament which have since been proven to be (at best) misleading.

Now it is this last statement that I have to disagree with Mike on and this is why;

22 Nov 2011 : Column 166

an added danger to any sea user, will the Minister reconsider his plans for closing any coastguard co-ordination centres, as the Prime Minister has already mentioned?

More »

“MOC the WEAK”
No it’s not a satirical TV news show.
No it’s not a dig at the elderly or infirm.

It IS a new Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) super emergency Call Centre based in Fareham: Maritime Operations Centre ( MOC )

Moc-in-progressXXIn 2011 the Government announced plans to close 50% of the 18 HM Coastguard Maritime Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC’s) around the UK and replace them with the (MOC).

Effectively doubling the workload of responsibility; E.G.  coastline, towns, ports, rivers, sea area, local place names, emergency assets, authority liaison and maritime partners.

However, with the MOC the new Future Coastguard System (FCS) complete with new technology & infrastructure would be used to reduce the workload. The FCS technology aims to integrate data from Emergency Radio, Beacons, Satellite, Mobile Phones, Landline Phones, Maritime Maps, Land maps with a new database containing every place name (Welsh, Celtic, English, nickname etc) and every emergency asset location.

AssurancesesThe Shipping Minister Mike Penning MP made the pledge that NO MRCC would close until the new systems & MOC had been thoroughly test & proven to do the work of the closing HM Coastguard Coordination Centres.

Commons Hansard: Statement on coastguard modernisation

Since 2011 Forth, Clyde and Gt. Yarmouth MRCC’s have closed.

Since 2011 the only progress announced by the MCA is the successful installation of a SINGLE operator desk (there should be at around 24 per shift not including training & development desks).

@MCA_media tweeted at 9:59 AM on Tue, Oct 29, 2013:
Update on the National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC).

In a recent House of Commons debate on the changes to HM Coastguard, it was revealed that the MOC or National Maritime Operations Centre ( NMOC as it is now called) was behind schedule being delayed at least 6 months.

Yet the Gov’t & MCA have announced the timetable for closing the remaining doomed MRCC’s despite having NO PROOF that the MOC will be ready in time or tested & proven.

Government led technology projects have notoriously failed in the past; the MOC is so far, following this trend.

The MOC is the WEAK link and IT’S A GAMBLE with lives at stake.

The only Risk Assessment done is a general one which compares how the situation was (prior to closures) and how it will be when the full Future Coastguard System and MOC are in place and proven to work.

There’s no Risk Assessment done for the situation today where 3 MRCC’s have closed.

There’s no Risk Assessment done for the MOC not being ready on time or to the appropriate level.

Write to your MP – STOP MRCC CLOSURES.


Let’s get the government to honour the commitment it made through the Shipping Minister,  otherwise it makes a mockery of everything said in parliament.

rescue signAny 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.

RNLI Poole

RNLI Poole

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?

coastguard flaresWell, 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.

KeyData-X4In 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.

Yarmouth coastguard deathWhy 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