Examination of Witnesses (Questions 392-432)
Q392 Chair: Good
morning ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to this meeting of the
Transport Select Committee. We normally hold our meetings in
the House of Commons, but today we have decided to come here to
take evidence from you, and that is because we are aware of so
much concern in Scotland about the proposals to the changes to
the coastguard service. Our inquiry covers proposals for the
whole of the UK, but we felt it was particularly important to
come here today so that we could meet people here and talk to
you directly about your concerns on the Government's plans for
change. I would like to start by asking each of you please to
give your name and the organisation that you represent, and that
is for our records.
Bob Skinley: Thank
you madam Chair, members of the Committee. My name is Bob Skinley.
I am a serving coastguard watch officer at Shetland MRCC but
I am also the branch treasurer of the Shetland branch of the Public
and Commercial Services Union, and it is in that capacity that
I appear before you today.
Alex Dodge: Good
morning. My name is Alexandra Dodge. I am also a serving watch
officer at Shetland Coastguard and I am the chairperson of the
Shetland branch of the PCS Union.
Good Morning Madam Chairman, members of the Committee. My name
is Murdo Macaulay; I am a serving coastguard watch manager and
today I am appearing as a branch official for the Stornoway Coastguard
branch of the Public and Commercial Services Union.
Good morning madam Chair. My name is Carol Collins. I am a watch
manager at Stornoway Coastguard and I am also the PCS branch chair
for the Stornoway branch.
Q393 Chair: Thank
you. Could you tell us whether you think there is a case for
modernising the coastguard and give us an indication of your major
concerns about the proposals being put forward? Who would like
Bob Skinley: Yes,
madam Chair. Coastguards are not against modernisation per se.
We do agree that there certainly is a case for certain improvements
to be made to the way we do things. In any job you are always
looking to improve and do things better. However, we do not agree
that requires the virtual decimation of the coastguard as it stands.
Things could be done to improve the way in which we do things
and the tools that we use to do the job without necessarily closing
half the coastguard stations and getting rid of half the staff.
The MCA has tried to imply through the consultation
document that the coastguard is some sort of 40-year-old, out-of-date
monolith that requires radical surgery, and that simply is not
the case. The coastguard is a constantly evolving and modernising
organisation. For example, over the last 10 to 15 years we have
seen the introduction of a raft of new technologies and tools
for us to use in order to do our job properly, such as a computerised
instant management system called VISION, which is undergoing a
further upgrade as we speak, and the introduction of ICCS, the
Integrated Coastguard Communications System, which is a touch-screen
system that combines all our telephones and radios, except the
MF, medium frequency, into one terminal. However, that is also
undergoing a current upgrade whereby the MF facility will be integrated
into that as well. We have things like AIS, the Automatic Identification
System, where we can see virtually in real time what vessels that
carry this system are doing. That has been in operations rooms
for a number of years now. So, to suggest that the coastguard
is some sort of out-of-date monolith that needs to be dragged
kicking and screaming into the 21st century is simply not the
case, I am afraid.
Q394 Chair: Does
anybody else want to either disagree with that or to add to it?
Alex Dodge: We
believe that this is not actually a modernisation; it is cost-cutting,
because everything that they propose for us to use is in use as
we stand just now. All they are proposing is just updated equipment;
there are no new systems; there is nothing new in what they are
proposing. It is a cost-cutting by stealth.
Q395 Chair: Are
you sure about that? The proposals that have been put forward
state that there would be new technology that would make the proposals
viable. Are you challenging that?
Alex Dodge: We
were told at the meeting in Shetland at the town hall, the public
meeting, that they would only be using existing technology. There
is nothing new in this.
Q396 Chair: Would
anybody else like to comment on that?
I think the point is that a lot of the technology that has been
referred to here is already in the process of being rolled out
and fitted into existing coastguard stations. The Radio Equipment
Replacement Project, the RER Project, is under way. There are
stations with this new gear in it now, and that, in essence, will
allow stations to link in a five-way grouping, if you like, giving
us ultimate resilience. To now imply that we should take this
bought-and-paid-for technology out of current stations, throw
it in the bin, and move to another system or move to a system
with less stations using exactly the same equipment we have just
bought and paid for, does not seem to be a sensible use of money
that has been spent on the project.
Q397 Chair: Mrs
Collins, how do you see this? Do you believe that the system
has been modernised or that it is in need of further modernisation?
The system that we have at the moment, that they are upgrading,
as Murdo says, has the capability to provide us with a networked
system. If we have that, it provides the resilience and certainly
it is a good system. But it is a system that was installed in
2000, I think. That is making use of an already old system, when
maybe we should be looking at upgrading, maybe comparing with
other organisations to make sure that we are compatible and that
we are dynamic towards the future, rather than maybe revamping
a system that is already there.
Q398 Chair: Do
you think that the proposals put forward are revamping what is
there, rather than doing things that are new and different?
Q399 Julian Sturdy:
I just want to follow on about the debate over the technology
and whether it is improvements or whether it is new technology.
To be fair, we have heard that from other areas that we have
been to as part of the inquiry already, so the same story is coming
through. I just wanted to touch on really the area that you cover
here, so obviously Stornoway and the Shetland Islands, because
earlier this morning it was pointed out to us that there are a
number of black spots across the areas that are being covered.
Is there any way that the advancements, if we can call them that,
coming down the linewhether it is new technology or just
tweaking the current systemare going to cover those black
spots at all?
At the moment, one of the things that has come out of the document
and in various meetings is that the actual infrastructure, the
remote VHF aerial sites that link every coordination centre to
their end user on radio, is not going to be changed. There is
no money there to build new ones, so the very raw mast that receives
that distress call from the person out in the water is not going
to change. So, under this proposal as it stands at the moment,
we will still have the black spots that we have now post-plan
A, for want of a better word. That is my understanding; that
is what has been put to us fairly regularly from all the questions
we have asked.
Q400 Julian Sturdy:
Any more views on that?
Bob Skinley: If
I may, I will just add something to that. Specifically, from
a Shetland point of view, we do have a lot of problems with our
communications, and that is purely because we do not have a fixed
link to the mainland. All our communications at present come
via microwave relay links and they are inherently unstable. They
are subject to atmospheric conditions, subject to weather, and
not just bad weather; it can happen in good weather as well.
Just recently, as you know, there has been a lot of high pressure
centred over the United Kingdom. This too, can have an adverse
effect on the communications, whereby they drop out, because they
are subject to a phenomenon called tropospheric scatter, which
breaks up the signal and scatters it. So, we can lose communications
at any time of year.
Now, it has been proposed that BT will link into
a fibre-optic cable that runs through Shetland and is owned by
Faroese Telecom. Now, BT have said they will link into that.
However, I had a discussion with the Scottish regional director
of BT and he was at pains to point out that, whilst this may well
provide some short-term improvement in terms of things like available
telephone lines, broadband speeds, etc., he could not, nor could
BT, guarantee that the problems we experience at the moment will
not be repeated, even though there is improved infrastructure
Q401 Julian Sturdy:
Given what you are saying, how important is the local knowledge
that you have within the current stations to these areas where
you do not have the communication covered?
Bob Skinley: It
is absolutely vital, because obviously in the operations room,
amongst the team that work in there, there will be somebody who
knows the specific coastguard or coastguard team that we need
to call out in order to provide such coverage. To give you an
example of what we do in terms of when we lose communications,
as it stands at the moment the most critical factor in being able
to cover the Shetland district if we lose communications with
the mainland is the fact that the MRCC actually exists and that
we have a radio mast at the back of the station that is hardwired
into the station. It is not routed to the mainland and is not
subject to these communications outages.
So, from the station in Lerwick we can communicate
still with our teams; we can put teams on hilltop sites to provide
emergency VHF coverage and talk to them on the radio. I can have
a team as far north as Saxa Vord on Unst; I can have a team as
far south as Fitful Head, at the southern end of Shetland, near
Sumburgh airport, and be able to talk to them via radio. Now,
that is important because obviously, if you have a coastguard
team on a hilltop site providing emergency cover, you need to
be able to speak to them for them to relay to you perhaps a distress
message that they have heard. You also need to talk to them because
quite often this happens in foul weather conditions, and you need
to be sure about their Health and Safety and to be able to organise
shift changeovers, because bear in mind these people are volunteers;
they may need to work in the morning. Now, that could not be
done from a MOC in Aberdeen or Southampton.
The other thing you have to remember is that quite
often the way these microwave relay links work is not only is
our traffic routed through them but so is the Public Service Telephone
Network, the PSTN, and indeed, the mobile phone network. So if
that link is down, it is entirely possible that not only will
we lose the radio coverage but also telephone and mobile telephone
links as well. In any case, mobile telephone coverage in Shetland
is patchy to say the least. In some places, like Lerwick, it
is quite good, and you get a really good signal. In other places
it is poor and in other places still, it simply does not exist.
So, if we go down the route of what the MCA plans and we have
a circumstance where this happens in Shetland, a MOC would be
unable to communicate. They might be able to task the teams to
go to the hilltop sites, but then they would not be able to communicate
with them. What happens then? The MCA has been unable to answer
Q402 Chair: Mr
Macaulay, what are the implications of local knowledge of Stornoway,
and could that local knowledge be used in a different way if the
proposals went ahead?
Yes. Earlier this morning I used an example. One of the pieces
of technology that the MCA have pointed to in the plan that will
work round their lack of knowledgeable operators of a particular
district is what is called the EISEC, the Enhanced Information
System for Emergency Calls. This is technology out there at the
moment that sends the positional information of a particular emergency
call with an error circle round it. Now, this works relatively
well where you have good mobile phone communications, where masts
are well spaced together, where they are close and where, in essence,
you do get small circles. It also relies on that particular mobile
phone being able to access its own network. Yesterday I was on
watch; I was coordinating a particular incident where we had a
broken 999 call that we had on the line for possibly about 10
seconds. The caller stated, "I am in a small boat; I am
being pushed onto the shore and I am in Inverpolly Fish Farm,"
and then the line went dead. With no disrespect to any other
colleagues around the country, there is little chance, I think,
of an operator in Southampton knowing where Inverpolly Bay is
on the North West coast of Sutherland. We knew as soon as that
was said where Inverpolly is. We directed the helicopter to it.
Again, in the document it refers to helicopter crews' local knowledge.
Our helicopter crews are excellent; I am not denigrating their
local knowledge in any way, shape or form. They did not know
where Inverpolly Bay was; they asked me for a direction to fly.
I directed the helicopter mid-air, it flew into Inverpolly and
because I know, because I live in this place, that salmon farms
tend to be in bays rather than in the open sea, we directed the
helicopter to a series of bays and this boat was, essentially,
saved on a bay on a lee shore, in what was actually a fairly horrible
day yesterday. That is how local knowledge can intervene when
technology, which is not currently at the kind of stage we need
for this plan, does not quite deliver the answer. There were
four people yesterday directly, I believe, saved or intervened,
certainly, as a result of local knowledge.
Q403 Paul Maynard:
It is now 10 years since the closure of the Oban, Tyne and Pentland
coastguard stations. I wondered if you could tell me what impact
you have seen of those closures, either on specific incidents
or more widely on how you interact with your volunteer coastguard,
who presumably will have taken over substantial chunks of area
that were not formerly part of your coastguard stations. How
does the relationship with your volunteer coastguards differ in
those two different branches?
Alex Dodge: For
Shetland coastguard I obviously joined after Pentland coastguard
joined, but I feel our interaction with the community in Orkney
is different to that in Shetland. I feel that we do not get as
many phone calls from Orkney, and they have lost their trust within
the coastguard. They feel they cannot phone us up and chat to
us. We do have a close working relationship with our coastguard
rescue officers within Orkney. They have had their numbers recently
reduced and yet again that does build a relationship of mistrust,
which you cannot afford to have within an organisation such as
ours. We have been accused of many things by the Orcadians.
Three years ago we were actually going through a fatal accident
inquiry ourselves, where a gentleman was lost from a boat, and
we have been accused that our lack of knowledge of Orkney was
at fault. Actually, I cannot say much more on that because it
is still going through the process, but that is what builds with
us: a feeling of mistrust because their coastguard station has
been lost; their coastguards have gone and they have been fobbed
off onto somebody else.
I would echo the same really. I joined the service in 1999 and
Oban Coastguard shut in September 2000. It would be wrong to
say the initial handover period was particularly comfortable.
I think the communities down there felt that they were being
hard done by. My personal view is that we are now at a point
where we have a reasonable working relationship with our responders
down there, whether that be lifeboat or volunteer coastguard rescue
teams and we just have to train and manage that. I would say
we have a good working relationship down there now, but that has
taken a decade to build. We are still not as close to the communities
there as we are to the communities we serve here and on the West
Coast of Scotland. It is a different situation definitely with
the district that was there post closure.
I would like to add to that because Oban district was actually
spilt in two, and Clyde coastguard took part of that district
and we took the northern part of that district, so there are more
relationships there that we do not know about that could come
into play. Really, probably, the best people to tell you what
the relationships are like would be the RNLI and the teams in
the local community.
Q404 Paul Maynard:
Do you believe that the transfer to MOC in Aberdeen or, indeed,
elsewhere, would cause similar problems?
Yes, it will cause problems I think, but when you are looking
at reducing so many coastguard stations to a few, and staff are
dealing with a much larger area, relationships and local knowledge
are going to be diluted. They are not going to be anywhere near
the same as staff that are based in a local community, get to
know the people, ship movements, the fishing, the activities in
their area. We envisage a MOC asnot an ideal worlda
call centre with cells in it. Now, with the best will in the
world, I do not think that environment is conducive to setting
up relationships to building local knowledge and keeping it going.
It is a dynamic thing.
Q405 Chair: What
has been the impact of that? Mr Macaulay said it took 10 years
to build the relationships. What has the actual impact of that
been? Have lives been lost? Have there been incidents that might
not have happened otherwise?
It is very hard for us to have that information. In certain areas
we do not have the same community links in there. Again, as Carol
said, possibly the likes of the lifeboat crews and their coastguard
teams would answer this, but there are undoubtedly incidents down
there that probably happen, probably occur and do not get reported
to us because we are not Oban coastguard. The other thing is
we have a fundamental issue of trust with the people that use
our seas. They know where we are; they know who we are. They
know that we know where they are and the situation they are in,
and I think the further you remove that, the less efficient our
service is going to be. You will reach a point where, I suspect,
again, this is probably true with the closure of ObanI
do not have anything to prove in concretepeople will not
be telling you about certain incidents. You will not be getting
knowledge of things that are going on. That particular knowledge
at any one time can be a critical piece in unravelling and solving
an incident that threatens life or the environment. In summary,
it is hard to say statistically what the closure of Oban did,
but I think we are certainly less close to the communities we
serve, and that is bad for the service. There is no doubt about
Q406 Mr Leech:
We have heard a lot of evidence, both formally and informally,
from people working in the coastguard service that there has been
a serious lack of consultation about the proposals before they
were published. Were any of your members in Stornoway or Shetland
contacted and spoken to about the modernisation process before
Bob Skinley: No.
No significant numbers of operational coastguards were at any
time contacted, or indeed involved, or indeed our colleagues in
the coast rescue service, in putting together this consultation
document. The only person on the management team who has any
operational coastguard experience at all is the chief coastguard,
Mr Johnson, and his experience of the coastguard operations room
has been some years ago. So no, there has been virtually no operational
coastguard input into this document.
Q407 Mr Leech:
Is that the same for Stornoway?
Absolutely, and I think it is the same for almost every station
around the country. It is probably a rather sad fact that we
are here today and the consultation has been done in public.
It has been done the wrong way round. We should have had this
process as a service before we moved to a plan, not issue a plan
and then move to this process in public as a service.
Q408 Mr Leech:
In answer to a previous question, Mr Skinley and Mr Macaulay,
you both talked about technological issues in Shetland and local
knowledge issues in Stornoway in relation to the difficulty that
you would have if your stations were to be closed. Had the people
who came up with these modernisation proposals been aware of the
things that you have been telling us this morning, do you think
that the proposals that have been put forward could possibly have
been put forward under those circumstances?
No. Given the evidence that is sitting with us now, with all
the arguments of resilience, local knowledge and lack of consultation,
I do not think that this plan stands up to any of these arguments
and delivers a safe and workable model for the UK search and rescue
system. That is where we stand, I think.
Bob Skinley: I
would agree with that. If they had done it the proper way round,
involved us from the beginninglet's not mess around here.
We are professional, operational coastguards. In essence, we
are the experts, and yet they chose not to ask us. Now, how can
you possibly come up with a plan related to safety of life if
you do not ask the people who deal with that on a day-to-day basis?
How can you possibly come up with a safe, workable plan? The
problem with this plan is its emphasis is all wrong. Their focus
is on centralising things and these MOCs becoming all-important,
and what goes on around the coast becomes, basically, peripheral.
What we are saying is: they have got this the wrong way round.
What is important is what happens out on the coast and what the
MRCCs, geographically dispersed around the coast, see and do.
The ability to have a backup, whereby the centre can take control
in extremis, is a good idea, but it is secondary to what we do
out on the coast. They have essentially got this the wrong way
round and they did not ask us. That is why this plan is ill thought
Q409 Chair: Please,
to the public, I do understand your strong feelings on this but
if you can, can we just have a dialogue between ourselves and
the witnesses. We have been told there has been a risk assessment
and that that does not show any undue risk coming from the proposals.
Do you have any comments on that, Mrs Dodge?
Alex Dodge: It
was a risk assessment that was created after the proposal was
published. There was obviously no forethought put into what they
were creatingno forethought as to the safety of people's
lives that this is all about. If there is one life lost due to
this, it is one life too many.
Q410 Mr Leech:
My final question is in relation to the exercise. What appears
to have been done is a paper exercise, based on certain coastguard
stations being allegedly busier than others, based on the number
of incidents. Would you say that the number of incidents that
are recorded can really justify saying one station is busier than
another, or do we need to measure how much time and effort and
workload is put into an incident before deciding on whether or
not a particular coastguard station is busy or not busy?
Bob Skinley: I
think the answer to your two questions are no and yes. The statistics
that have been presented by the MCA do not give a true picture.
All they do is give a bare number. To give an example of that,
if you have an incident, say, off the South Coast of England,
which involves, perhaps, a child floating off on a lilo, that
incident may be resolved in a short space of time and involve
very few resources and relatively minimal effort. However, by
the same token, to give an example from the Shetland district,
we had an anchor-handling tug called Bourbon Dolphin that overturned.
Now, that particular incident took four days to resolve. However,
what you get in the statistics: one incident for the South Coast,
one incident for Shetland. So there is no weighting given to
the statistics as to the nature or severity or duration of the
incident, so it paints a false picture. Just because, say, a
South Coast station has lots of incidents in terms of numbers
does not necessarily make them busier than a station like Shetland
that has had one incident of the gravity of the Bourbon Dolphin.
Furthermore, I would argue that it, in any case,
has been a misleading use of statistics, because what they have
done is taken raw numbers and said, "Our numbers show that
between certain months of the year, and at certain times of the
day, there is a peak in activity." Those numbers are artificially
skewed by the number of single incidents that would occur off
the South Coast of England, say, on a busy bank holiday, or during
the summer season, when there are a lot of people at the seaside.
However, to then take that, extrapolate that around the coast
and say, "This is the basis under which we can say we can
safely close coastguard stations, or indeed reduce coastguard
stations to daytime-only operation," is, frankly, risible.
There is a strong difference between what happens on the South
Coast, and around the waters of the Northern Isles and Western
Isles. Yes, numerically perhaps, we get fewer incidents, but
they are more severe, often very extended, and involve a lot of
effort. So, yes, I would agree that perhaps the best way to do
this is to delve deeper into the incidents and come up with some
idea of the gravity, nature and the extent, rather than just going
on pure numbers.
I absolutely agree with what Bob says, and if you think about
the South Coast as well, there are both RNLI and independent lifeboats.
There is a thickness of resources along the South Coast of England.
Not only that, if you go down there in summer there are boats
everywhere, so rescues can be effected quite quickly, either by
launching a SAR unit or just by somebody else going to assist.
Up here, as you saw today in the operations room, our resources
are much more widely spaced and it takes planning and careful
thought as to what resources you are going to put in to get the
right response to this district. For example, we have not got
lifeboats the length and breadth of the West Coast of the Isle
of Lewis, so it is often our helicopter that has to respond to
incidents out there. There are a lot more tactics involved and
planning that needs to be taken into account.
Q411 Iain Stewart:
Amongst the written evidence that we have received is, of course,
all the MCA's responsibilities could be devolved down to the Scottish
Government. Now leaving aside any broader political or constitutional
issues that might be prevalent at the time, practically, would
such a move be viable, or are there operational or logistical
reasons that would suggest we should maintain a UK-wide system
Chair: We do not want
to get into the
We are not getting into politics yet.
Chair: Not today, anyway.
Not today. I am aware that my MP is sitting not that far behind
me. I think both logistically and operationally there is absolutely
no reason why we cannot move to a devolved service, in line with
other emergency services, and deliver exactly what we do just
now, or possibly better. If you were to devolve, you could tie
into other agencies and in essence produce an integrated plan
with Scotland with all your other blue-light partners on an equal
footing. So, politics aside, logistically, operationally, yes,
I think the case is there.
Q412 Iain Stewart:
Is that view shared by the other witnesses?
Alex Dodge: Yes,
we could look towards the likes of the Norwegian coastguard, where
they combine their search and rescue with their fisheries protection,
with their lighterage. All those sorts of things could be combined.
So, Scotland could do the same thing; we could have an all-encompassing
marine directorate that is in charge of our maritime environment.
Bob Skinley: I
would agree on the face of it. Logistically and operationally,
there is absolutely no reason why that could not be the case.
Q413 Chair: There
are proposals to have five sub-centres, possibly including yours,
but that is not clear, to be open in daylight hours only. What
are your views on that proposal, from an operation point of view?
Bob Skinley: There
are a number of problems with that. Firstly, as I have already
indicated in terms of the statistics that the MCA provided, this
whole rationale for daytime-running stations is based on the premise
that we have a clearly identifiable peak of activity. Now, as
I already explained to you, certainly around the coast of Scotland
that simply is not the case. For the majority of Scottish stations
the actually incident profile flatlines, with perhaps a small
bump in the summer, but not as noticeable as perhaps on the South
Coast of England.
Furthermore, the MCA in the document made great play
of the fact that we should beand we area national
emergency service. Do we think it is a good idea for a national
emergency service to be thinking of going down the road of operating
on anything other than a 24-hour basis? I do not think so. It
does not make sense. Furthermore, particularly in our neck of
the woods, around by Shetland and I am sure it is the case for
Stornoway as well, some of our severest incidents will happen
precisely during the hours when the MCA thinks it is safe to close
coastguard stations: at night, during the winter months, in the
severest of weather conditions. The whole premise of having anything
other than a 24-hour service is a non-starter in my view.
Q414 Julie Hilling:
I want to ask questions really about local knowledge and volunteers.
A lot has been said around this whole inquiry around the need
for local knowledge, but you are all having to learn about big
tracts of coastline. Coastguards that we have met have transferred
from other stations into different areas and so have to do that
learning. Can that knowledge not be transferred into a larger
I would like to answer that. I was at MRCC Belfast for 10 years
before I moved up here. I moved up here in 2002 and I did my
homework before I came here because I thought, "This is a
very big district and I am not a Gaelic speaker." When I
came up here I had to get used to the language, and know what
to type into the computer system because there is the English
version then there is the Gaelic version. Do I try to type the
Gaelic version in; do I try to use the English? All these wee
quirks. It is a vast district and compared with Belfast, I can
honestly say I will probably never know this district inside out,
and I think Murdo will hopefully agree with me there. There is
so much to it.
Now, as I said before, if you combine that into a
MOC or one station that has then got local of not just the West
Coast of Scotland but the whole of Scotland, and then look at
maybe a centre in Southampton trying to cope with that, I say
you will lose local knowledge. Local knowledge will not be local
knowledge, and I really, speaking from experience, know that you
are not going to be able to harvest this knowledge, and put it
into a database, keep it up to date and have it as a useful tool.
Being a part of the community, being a team where you can draw
on each other's local knowledge is the key to it. That makes
the fast response. We do not sit and type around in Google trying
to find out where something is, unless we are really stuck. We
get on with it; we put our heads together and we discuss it, and
I just do not see how that is going to work on a larger scale.
Q415 Julie Hilling:
I heard what you said with that, and your role is identifying
where the incident is, but can the volunteers who are actually
out there working on the ground and facilitating the rescue be
coordinated from a centre, wherever that centre is?
One thing that has been said is that the Maritime Operation Centres
will operate with desksparticular desks that will have
a certain area to them. But that steps into the realm of the
fact that we are responsible for the coordination of an incident;
we are not simply call takers who take a call, put it on the map.
We are responsible from the infancy of that incident until, essentially,
it is closed and, for want of a better word, cradle to graveit
is closed and dealt with. So, we have elements of coordination
all the way through that that call in our local knowledge, contacts,
the people we have, the trust we have built up with various responders,
and not just responders, but the wider public who often help resolve
incidents. That has taken many years to formulate. Carol says
it is about being part of the community. It absolutely is. There
is knowing who is where, what has actually happened out there,
and simply knowing the kind of terrain and the weather that you
are putting these people into.
I know we have moved on a bit from the day-centre
debate, but all these arguments are possibly even more critical
by night, with more complex and harder things. So, I think local
knowledge is critical and it is critical for the entire duration
of that incident, and it is not something that you can replicate
by a desk with someone who has no concept of, for example, the
west coast of Scotland or the islands.
Q416 Julie Hilling:
Would that then put more responsibility on the volunteers, in
terms of recruiting volunteers? You have got a voluntary force
out there that are doing the work. What effect do you think that
would have on them: their recruitment, their retention, etc?
We have good links with the volunteersthe coastguard rescue
officers that actually go out and do the job for us. We have
excellent links with these people, and all I can say is that they
have been entirely supportive of our station's campaign; they
have been entirely supportive of the wider campaign. I had better
be clear, for the record, that this is only the teams I have spoken
to within Stornoway; I have no national overview of this picture.
They have been entirely supportive, and the fundamental issue
of trust and knowing each other is critical, and it is only in
times of stress that you will test that and rely on that. Day-to-day,
nice, smooth, easy sailing: you can possibly do without that.
When times are hard and when you are asking people to do unpleasant
things, that is when you need to have that knowledge of the individuals,
the team capabilities, the kind of place you are sending them
into, and that link is fairly dynamic and changes by the second.
I do not think, and I do not think anyone in the service thinks,
that you can replicate that from a station on the other side or
at the other end of the country, and that is no denigration to
any of my colleagues.
Q417 Chair: You
said before, I think, that it was more complicated at night or
more difficult at night. Have you got any evidence to back that
Night incidents present you with various dangers that are not
there by day; they make getting across the terrain, navigating
the terrain, simply getting out and getting teams in and back,
more difficult and more complex. They tend to, therefore, stretch
out the incidents, if you like. So, incidents that would be resolved,
say, within a ballpark figure of an hour by day will take significantly
longer by night.
Q418 Paul Maynard:
Could you, Mrs Dodge, perhaps, very briefly explain how you think
leisure usage in the north of Scotland has changed in recent years
and what the impacts have been for your service?
Alex Dodge: In
the 10 years that I have been within the coastguard service I
can say that we have got fewer fishing vessels working in the
area, but we have more and more visiting yachtsman coming right
the way up from the South Coast of England; coming from Norway
and Faroe. We also have a lot more people interested in more
extreme sports: doing sail boarding, windsurfing, kayaking. Kayaking
has increased vastly over the past few years. We quite often
have unusual incidents; we have had a pair of Faroese gentlemen
who used a personal watercraft to come over from Faroe. We also
get people trying to row back from Norway. But we also have people
going out fishing on small boats. There are numerous ways that
people like to enjoy the maritime environment around us and it
is getting more and more every year.
Q419 Paul Maynard:
Do any of you think that there is any weight in the allegation,
perhaps, that in the MCA's current proposals it is paying more
attention to its legal, statutory obligations towards the commercial
shipping industry and insufficient attention to its obligations
towards leisure craft users and general coastal services?
Alex Dodge: Yes,
absolutely. What you have got to remember is the professional
mariner is trained to deal with situations and they tend to be
able to cope and they know what to do. But this proposal does
not speak about the majority of our customers, for want of a better
word, which is usually the leisure time, maritime user.
Q420 Paul Maynard:
Would any of the panel disagree with that?
No, I would agree and I think page 13 of the consultation document
issued makes reference to refreshment of modern communications
technology, and they mention specifically automatic identification
system and long-range identification and tracking. There are
other references in there to positioning aides like GPS and Emergency
Position Indicating Radio Beacons, that have, in their own words,
taken the "search" out of search and rescue. But these
are systems that only have to be carriedso regulatoryon
large commercial vessels. This is a tiny percentage of our statistics.
In the statistics for Stornoway last year, 4% of our casualties
were commercial maritime4%. I have no doubt that that
is probably echoed at many other stations. In fact, if anything,
it is probably smaller, because given the nature of our district
we have more commercial traffic passing through it.
Q421 Mr Leech:
How important are the ETVs in giving support to the coastguard
service in Shetland and Stornoway?
Our coastguard tug in Stornoway is used quite regularly. It has
a duty to escort laden tankers over 50,000 gross tonnes through
the Little Minch. We get quite a lot of vessels of that size
transiting between the likes of Pembroke and Sullom Voe. We also
use the tug for vessels that carry hazardous chemicals and that
sort of thing. Should one of these ships get into difficulty,
it is the only vessel there capable of holding it off our shoreline.
There are no other commercial tugs. The nearest commercial tugs
are in Glasgow, possibly Aberdeen, which is a long distance away.
If we are looking at holding a vessel off our coastline to prevent
an environmental disaster, that is the only vessel we have.
Bob Skinley: I
agree with what Carol says. We are in a similar situation in
Shetland. The ETV has been provided there to cover what we call
the Fair Isle channel, which, as you will appreciate, is an important
shipping lane between the oil fields of Norway and the United
States and Canada. Last year 935 vessels carrying dangerous cargoes
transited those waters. We need a vessel in place with sufficient
bollard pull to be able to hold such a vessel should the need
There have been occasions in the past when we have
had to resort to the commercial sector, because our ETV has been
involved in another incident, to see whether we can obtain the
services of a tug. Frankly, it has been impossible. We go through
the regular agencies, tugboat brokers such as Sam Stewart and
Marint. The nearest tug we can get is about 14 hours' sailing
away in Aberdeen. Even if you seek a tug in Aberdeen there is
no guarantee you will get it, because quite often most of the
traffic in Aberdeen is already on contract to somebody else.
They are not going to break that contract because it is worth
too much money to them.
I talked to you earlier about our communication problems.
One of the tools in our toolbox for dealing with communication
problems is, strangely enough, the ETV. We can station the ETV
in the Fair Isle channel to give additional radio coverage, even
to the extent that we can use it as a link to hop down to Orkney
if we need to. That tool will be taken from our toolbox with
the removal of the ETV.
Q422 Mr Leech:
Are there any examples of a disaster involving the environment
or human life that has been averted because of the work of the
At the end of last year I had an incident involving a commercial
vessel called the Red Duchess, which almost ran aground on the
island of Rum. The ETV was tasked and it took a bit of steaming
time to get to the scene, so the Mallaig lifeboat managed to hold
the ship, which was a small coaster laden with coal bound for
Stornoway. For most of that day the lifeboat held that ship off
the coastline of Rum. The tug got there literally in the nick
of time. Just as it arrived I think the towline between the lifeboat
and ship broke. Even when the ETV took that vessel in tow the
line parted a couple of times. They got her in tow, and I think
she came within half a mile of the coastline of Rum.
Q423 Mr Leech:
If the ETV had not been able to be on the scene, what would have
been the likely outcome?
I do not think the lifeboat could have carried on holding that
vessel. It was a lee shore. If I remember, the wind was very
strong at times, about force 6 or 7, and the lifeboat would not
have held it much longer. There is nothing else in that area.
We took broadcast action; we looked at AIS to see if there was
anything else there. There was not. Our ETV had to take that
Q424 Iain Stewart:
I should just like to pick up some of the earlier comments about
the implications of the closure of Oban. One of the alternative
models suggested to us would be effectively to close Clyde and
make Stornoway responsible for most of the west coast of Scotland
but also retain Belfast and some cross-border, if that is the
right word, to do the west coast of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
In particular, given Miss Collins' experience, how viable is
Given Belfast's infrastructure, it could certainly expand. We
could certainly expand further south, so that is an option.
One of the arguments that may come up against this instantly,
or certainly one that people present to us when this alternative
model is put forward, is how you can you say on the one hand that
you will have this critical loss of local knowledge and yet propose
the closure of a handful of coastguard stations. My counter to
that is that what we would be looking at by closing a handful
of stations, with the caveat of "if we must", and moving
to a managed downsizing we would not be taking over entirely different
areas of the country with which we had no links or understanding
of the language or the communitiesthe maritime picturebut
simply evolving. Our district would be expanding and we would
be taking over an area of which we already have some knowledge.
To take a raw example, if Clyde did shut and Stornoway
expanded to the south and took in Clyde's district, we would simply
be stretching down the west coast of Scotland. It is not an area
unknown to us. You would need a fairly generous timescale for
that to be managed safely. As a ballpark we would probably be
looking at the lifetime term of the implementation as plannedfour
yearsto get that managed safely before you could close
the key in any station's door.
Equipment being developed at the moment would facilitate that,
because with our ability to link into other stations on our flanks
properly that could be a gradual process and a proper building
up of real local knowledge without trying to bite off too much.
It is gradual and can be done; it would work.
Q425 Chair: You
are saying that some change is possible?
Yes, but well managed.
Q426 Chair: But
not on the scale and speed proposed?
The day station argument is certainly one, within the 12-station
model, that, if we are honest, is a fairly common model that has
been put forward by a lot of different stations. I do not think
that any station at this point is advocating day stations because
of the difficulties that arise with handing over incidents. At
some point in the 24hour period you have to hand over a
live incident to another station on the other side of the country.
Handing over a live incident of any size within your current
station where you are face to face with your oncoming watch is
a difficult process. You can iron out any issues; you can sit
with them and let them bed in and get their feet under the table
and understand what is going on. It is difficult enough to do
To use the current proposal as a model, if Stornoway,
or Shetland for that matter, was a day station handing over to
Aberdeen at the close of the day, the potential for missing key
information on any particular incident would be too great to give
the day station argument any merit. Recently this year we have
had major ongoing investigations in the courts in a fatal accident
inquiry. One of the key problems was that there was a disjointed
handover. As a result the MCA brought out an operational advice
note, which essentially said that, if at all possible, incidents
should not be handed over because it was too dangerous.
Q427 Chair: When
did that happen? Have we got this on the record?
The date of issue of that particular operational advice note was
28 April 2010. That was the date of issue of the work guidance
Q428 Chair: That
arose after an incident?
There would have been others, but this was the direct result of
an incident involving the fishing vessel Aquila, the ensuing fatal
accident inquiry and the various recommendations made by that.
Chair: We will have a
look at that.
Q429 Julian Sturdy:
I want to go back to the questions put by Mr Maynard. He
talked about activities changing within the waters, with fewer
fishing boats and more pleasure boats and leisure activities.
I know the activity is changing, but are the waters getting busier?
Certainly from the point of view of pleasure craft. I hope Murdo
agrees with me. Recently, kayaking in our district seems to be
a very big activity. We are logging details of them more than
ever. There are large groups that do not go out just for a day
or two; they island hop. They make perhaps a week's trip out
of it, trying to get weather windows. We talked earlier today
about St Kilda. If they get the right weather window they head
out on expeditions to St Kilda and back. That is one activity
that is really taking off.
Mrs Dodge: I also
refer to the commercial sector within Shetland. In our area we
have a salmon industry worth £180 million. That is
absolutely massive. There is a lot of small boat activity involved
in that. Obviously, environmental impact is vital to those people
because they bank on our clean, pristine environment and the view
everybody has about our place. We also have a vast increase of
cruise ships coming into our waters. This year alone 53 cruise
ships are booked to come into Lerwick, and 69 came into Kirkwall
in Orkney last year. There is a growing ecotourism boom going
on just now, where people go out to see the wildlife; they go
round the nature reserves in Shetland. That is increasing all
the time. People want to come and see wildlife, and we have to
look after them as well.
Q430 Julie Hilling:
On a totally different tack, there was a proposal to disband the
Maritime Incident Response Group. I just wonder what effect that
would have in this region.
The Maritime Incident Response Group is our fire-fighting teams
equipped for maritime response. They are also there to help in
incidents where people are trapped or incidents involving chemicals.
They are the experts who are ready to go with the equipment.
They can be put on to a helicopter and flown out to a ship at
its request. I recently was involved in an incident where they
were about to be flown to one of our islands in Skye following
the report of a fire, because that was the best way to move the
team. The equipment is ready; the fire fighters are trained;
they just go. A lot of work was done to set that up. The procedures
with regard to tasking them could be simplified, but a lot of
work has gone into preparing this service, training them and getting
them equipped so they are ready to be transported by helicopter.
That is a good thing to have.
Q431 Julie Hilling:
You are saying that is more than incidents at sea; it is being
used for land incidents in more remote places?
Yes. Just a few weeks ago a fire was reported on an island just
off Skye. The fire brigade itself wanted to task the MIRG team
and asked for our helicopter to take them, and that was what happened.
Luckily, it was resolved before they got there, but the team
with its equipment was on the aircraft ready to take off.
Q432 Chair: Is
the view of the Shetlands similar?
Bob Skinley: Yes.
The Highlands and Islands Fire Brigade also has a MIRG team based
in Kirkwall. I agree with Carol. We need to see an improvement
in the way we call out these teams out in the first place, because
it is very long winded. I think they can also be utilised more
effectively. A lot of thought and money has gone into equipping
and training these teams. Like Stornoway, we get incidents involving
fires on remote islands that the fire brigade cannot get to.
At the moment they have to talk to us and see if we can get the
local inter-islands ferry or whatever to come out and take them
across. However, there are some islands where ferries do not
operate, so the ability to have a team to hand to fight fires
that can be deployed by helicopter on a more regular basis than
at the moment certainly would be an asset to us and I am sure
to the fire brigade as well. We would like to see them retained,
the procedure for calling them out speeded up and greater use
being made of them, particularly in island chains.
Chair: Thank you very
much for coming to answer our questions.