I have blogged about the use of Technology & HM Coastguard in the past (see http://coastguardsos.com/techno-trouble/), but on reading the MCA’s brave new vision for the Future Coastguard System, I’ve touched on the topic again.
I say ‘Brave’ new vision, should I have said ‘Impossible’? Please read and make your own minds up.
“Underpinning maritime domain awareness is the knowledge base of HM Coastguard. The knowledge
base is geographical information covering the entire service area enriched by an awareness of
environmental factors, social relationships, the availability, capabilities and limitations of SAR assets
and any other significant features that allow staff to fully understand the scene of action remotely.”
Under the ‘Old’ Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC) System (before Forth & Clyde MRCC’s closed) there were 18 MRCC’s around the UK.
Given that HM Coastguard is responsible for in excess of 19,491miles of coastline (the MCA website is wrong), we can approximate that each MRCC had the responsibility for around a 1,000 miles of coastline.
The importance of Local Knowledge is such that each officer has to sit an exam & prove their competence.
By closing 50% of MRCC’s each coastguard will have immediately learn the complete Local Knowledge of an approx extra 1,000 miles of Coastline.
“Under our proposals, the MOC will be supported by a subsidiary site at Dover, where the site
infrastructure is such that it can assume the role of the MOC once reinforced with additional staff.
Other Coastguard Centres will be located at Aberdeen, Shetland, Stornoway, Belfast, Milford Haven,
Falmouth, Holyhead and Humber; with a much smaller operation on the tidal River Thames in
During the closure program and before the new Maritime Operation Centre is working, the remaining coastguards must manage without the new technology to assist and also, importantly without sitting any additional local knowledge exam.
“Operators will, supported by technology, spend the necessary time validating and developing this knowledge base, and remain competent in its application. Trainees will commence with a section proximate to their normal place of work but will, over time, become familiar with the entire service area.”
(The statement above assumes that Coastguards will move from closing stations, that there will be time to learn when workload has doubled / trebled and that there is a full complement of staff.)
So, eventually Coastguards will be expected to be ‘familiar’ of all 19,491+ miles of coastline and given that the Future Coastguard System talks about “UK Maritime Domain Awareness” this will include anywhere in the world that a UK flagged ship is at anytime i.e. Global Awareness.
Even if the new technology that this plan relies heavily on does work, the sheer magnitude of the scope of ‘local knowledge’ that Coastguards will have to be proficient in cries out for more staff not less!
The introduction of technology (computer systems, databases, automated monitoring and communications) is not something that I am against, far from it, I fully embrace technology where I can but I would not bet my life on it without proven back-up alternatives.
HM Coastguard MRCC’s are being closed before the new MOC is running and any real world proof that replacement systems work – FACT.
The hasty rate of closures are failing to capture existing local knowledge, there is documentary proof that the so called ‘Pairing’ system between MRCC’s only worked between 2 of the original 18 rescue centres.
These facts are important because they underpin the basis of the new Future Coastguard System (FCS).
Please bear with me on the next bit… I’m not going off topic but trying to make a very important point about technology & safety requirements!
International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), 1974
These regulations are intended to provide proper safeguards for all vessels using our seas.
SOLAS V/19 – Carriage requirements for ship borne navigational systems and equipment
V/19.2.1 All ships irrespective of size shall have:
V/22.214.171.124 nautical charts and nautical publications to plan and display the ship’s route for the intended voyage and to plot and monitor positions throughout the voyage; an Electronic Chart Display and Information System (ECDIS) may be accepted as meeting the chart carriage requirements of this subparagraph;
V/126.96.36.199 back-up arrangements to meet the functional requirements of subparagraph .4, if this function is partly or fully fulfilled by electronic means.
In other words; yes, you can use technology of computerised navigation systems but you need to have a tried and trusted back-up system of in-date’ physical charts and manual navigation equipment.
There are many other maritime laws which demand the use of human involvement as a back-up to technology!
So why are the Government, DfT and MCA ignoring the wisdom and proven requirements of human (Coastguards) back-ups of sufficient MRCC’s around our coast? Especially as the replacing system is not proven!
The truth is; concerns are being ignored by those intent on seeing the service decimated, just to meet an unreasonable cost saving target that completely ignores operational sense.
Some of the MRCC’s closed/closing have excellent facilities which combine the knowledge and expertise of everyone in the responsible area, including the experts in HMCG that perform other functions such as Marine Surveying, safety assessments. The fact that most of these stations have staff living in a local proximity means excellent local on-scene response. The greater the area of responsibility will increase response times with a negative impact on incident containment.
Each MRCC is already in a location of need and incident numbers confirm this. Similarly, the more stations you have, the greater chance you will have of stations picking up any weak Mayday calls or automatic transmissions.
Again, there have been instances where EPIRB equipment is fitted but auto distress and positioning has failed.
”No alarm was raised, even though the vessel was fitted with an emergency position indicating radio beacon (EPIRB) and a MOB Guardian.”
See MAIB report http://www.maib.gov.uk/publications/investigation_reports/2013/betty_g.cfm
Rescue coordination staff already have enough workload to contend with; there are multiple systems to monitor simultaneously, e.g. monitoring radio traffic from several masts which are all fed into one computer & speaker. Simultaneous broadcasts can be an issue; as stronger ones will drown out weaker ones.
Perhaps the MCA should be concentrating on improving existing systems with better prevention of communications breakdowns which have been highlighted in the press recently.
In the recent Transport Select Committee inquiry, much evidence was given about repeated communications problems but the MCA appear not to be addressing the issue, which will have greater impact as MRCC’s take on bigger areas to manage.
Failure to address current problems with existing technology that the FCG system will be built on is reckless, the MCA is making unproven claims of system ‘robustness’ and resilience.
Staffing is a crucial factor for the FCS, but it’s not surprising that the latest staffing figures for MRCC’s are still showing a significant shortage of staff especially at the ‘safe’ stations. (Even with the 2 closed stations taken out of the equation). The Transport Select Committee review was highly critical of the way moral has been affected and staffing levels.
Are Coastguards leaving because they are fearful of workload/responsibility with a deep mistrust of the current plan?
Manning levels at the majority of MRCC’s are at crisis level, it is unlikely many will remain in the stations earmarked for closure; the bold assertions in the FCS concept of operation will flounder with the lack of experienced coastguards with local knowledge for many areas. This will have a dire impact on the FCS working.
In summary; the current plan is looking more unworkable each day, valuable knowledge and experience is being drained away at an alarming rate, reliability and communication issues are not being addressed.
The Future Coastguard System is a Mission Impossible!
There is no technology out there that can perform miracles.
HM Coastguard has 191years of hard learnt lessons in achieving today’s level of competence. The FCS looks likely to throw away much of this competence on an unproven operational theory.
NB. Just prior to me writing this blog, 5 Coastguard Officers from Liverpool MRCC were awarded the Chief Coastguards commendation for Exceptional and Meritorious service, this was for their part in rescue coordination of 23people from the MV Riverdance ferryboat exactly 5 years earlier. The rescue was in a Force10 gale in 7M seas and described as one of the most challenging rescues in modern maritime history.
Why mention this? Well two reasons:
1). The existing MRCC’s work, in a proven statistical and operational way.
2). The MCA has failed to make any public acknowledgement of the stations achievements because it proves how vital this station is! When asked to comment in the newspaper article (link above), the MCA gave this reply:
A Maritime and Coastguard Agency spokesman today vowed there would be no change in how emergency situations were dealt with.
She said: “As part of the new structure, the Maritime Operations Centre will maintain an overview of activity right across the country and make sure work on search and rescue coordination, tackling pollution incidents and monitoring shipping is effectively managed.”
No mention of the award, no acknowledgement of staff, just a reference to the MOC with propaganda claims that contain no proof operational certainty.
Awards are scarcely given and this is not a unique occurrence, between the 5 Coastguards they hold 13 of these awards. It is something of a record and brings home the issue of MRCC being located in areas that have high incidents due to traffic volumes & notoriously treacherous areas of coastal responsibility (unlike the MOC – which is not on the coast!).