Coastguard: Response time and local knowledge


By Hazel Lewry
Westminster is about to close the comment period on the “coastguard reorganisation”, a “reorganisation” that will see Scotland lose the facilities on the Forth and Clyde estuaries should it go ahead as planned.
At the present every indication is it will go ahead.  Reconsideration would be appropriate, but appears unlikely.  Westminster is using the “reorganisation” basically as an asset sell off to raise cash, Whitehall needs the cash as it’s effectively bankrupt.

A few months ago the frontrunner for the new government contract was Soteria, an international consortium, although that contract was recently put “on hold”.

This may lead to an interesting situation where William, heir to the throne, would be in RAF service but subcontracted to Soteria for all his search and rescue duties. Soteria stands to make money from his services that are already paid for by either the civil list or RAF.

We’ll call that another Westminster first, just for the royals this time. Like many other RAF pilots William will effectively be earning his pay in the private sector, however “Wills” doesn’t seem to keen on the idea himself. The crown prince has publically argued against the proposed search and rescue services alterations.

The coast guard is effectively the ambulance service of the ocean.

The present suggestion from some bean counter in Whitehall is to have Coastguard stations at part time Stornaway and full time Belfast, cover the West Coast with Aberdeen the only remaining East Coast facility in Scotland.

Would we accept one ambulance depot covering the entire east coast, and rely on ambulances from another country for our west coast?

That’s what’s about to be rubber stamped in spite of the fact that the Scottish Government has expressed strong desires on more than one occasion to assume responsibility for the entire service in Scotland.

If the responsibility is devolved, the assets can’t be sold.

The privatisation of the coastguard search and rescue services is effectively PPI or PFI by another name. The country gets to pay much more for substantially less, precisely 33% less in this case as the search and rescue fleet is to be reduced by one third.

Westminster tells us they can’t afford the new helicopters, reducing the count from its present thirty six Sea-Kings to twenty four Sikorsky’s that will be under private ownership and public contract. Private ownership needs to make a profit.

Newsflash for Westminster, cancel the junk hardware you don’t need and spend the money on life saving services we do need. If the rubbish can’t be cancelled then budget better and phase in the equipment. Alternatively the aircraft carriers you can’t afford and were just going to put helicopters on, station those helicopters with search and rescue.

Station closures; there are two main issues, response time and local knowledge.

The extra time required for a rescue helicopter may only be some ten minutes, a little less in some cases if a vessel gets into difficulty in just the right area.

Speaking from personal experience in captaining a trawler; the pure unpredictability of the ocean says clearly it’s not an easy life, experience tells me that difficulty rarely ever happens in “just the right area” at “precisely the right time”.

In winter the survival time in the seas around Scotland is measured in minutes. Those extra minutes taken for a heli-lift from Stornaway or Belfast might just be minutes that ocean travelers don’t have.

Then we have to consider the time taken for coastguard vessels to reach a stricken ship. If a Cal-Mac ferry was foundering ten miles off Ardnamurchan point, or we had a repeat of the Piper Alpha disaster, we should severely question the ability of the token force remaining to be able to handle either type of incident.

With the added loss of capacity through the attrition of the RAF bases which could previously assist the coastguard the result is that the waterborne rescue capacities for an island nation, already woefully understaffed become almost laughable.

Then there’s that “local knowledge” bit.

The issue appears to be that Westminster doesn’t seem to realise it’s not discussing changes to the AA or RAC. Watercraft don’t travel on clearly delineated highways. Skippers use charts.

The problem with not being “on the hard” is that liquid flows. It doesn’t flow evenly. It ebbs, eddies and the wind makes its own impact. Vessels rarely get into trouble on flat calm seas when there’s no wind, though a skipper I know did just that. He caught an old driftnet in his running gear around midnight, it almost cost him his vessel.

A vessel captain may have taken a course reading two hours ago, and report where he thought he’d be as trouble hit. In reality he might be five or ten miles from where he believed. Local knowledge instinctively knows the tidal level, incoming or outgoing, and the impact that will have when combined with wind and sea current.

This means there’s a good chance they’ll look in approximately the right place. If there are two available responding centers they can perform faster sweeps.

It also means there’s a good chance they’ll be able to perform their job safely and not simply add to the casualty list.

A ship in difficulty at Corryvreckan is a good example, local knowledge might say there is no risk half an hour each side of slack tide. Four times a day, in one hour increments anyone can sail across the whirlpool – outside of those four one hour increments it’s increasingly fatal.

The issue with a loss of local knowledge is simple, the tide isn’t slack at the same time each day. It changes by almost an hour daily. The tide in Aberdeen isn’t slack at the same time as the tide at Ardnamurchan.

In stress situations human error happens easily and compounds quickly.

Radio contact and sat-phones are for the movies, most trawlers or smaller working ships together with sailing pleasure craft that aren’t millionaire’s playthings only have one reliable “friend” – it’s called an EPIRB – Emergency Position Radio Indicator Beacon – it deploys when you’re going down. 

What’s next from Westminster – dial 999 and get a call center in India?