The Coastguard, Emergency Towing Vessels and the Maritime Incident Response Group - Treasury Contents

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.

Murdo Macaulay: 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.

Carol Collins: 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 to start?

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?

Murdo Macaulay: 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?

Carol Collins: 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?

Carol Collins: Definitely, yes.

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 line—whether it is new technology or just tweaking the current system—are going to cover those black spots at all?

Murdo Macaulay: 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 in place.

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 that question.

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?

Murdo Macaulay: 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.

Murdo Macaulay: 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.

Carol Collins: 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?

Carol Collins: 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 as—not an ideal world—a 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?

Murdo Macaulay: 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 Oban—I do not have anything to prove in concrete—people 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 that.

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 the publication?

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?

Murdo Macaulay: 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?

Murdo Macaulay: 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 beginning—let'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 out.

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 creating—no 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.

Carol Collins: 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 of management?

Chair: We do not want to get into the—

Murdo Macaulay: We are not getting into politics yet.

Chair: Not today, anyway.

  Murdo Macaulay: 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 be—and we are—a 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 centre?

Carol Collins: 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.

  Murdo Macaulay: No, definitely.

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?

Murdo Macaulay: One thing that has been said is that the Maritime Operation Centres will operate with desks—particular 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 grave—it 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?

Murdo Macaulay: We have good links with the volunteers—the 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 statement up?

Murdo Macaulay: 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?

Murdo Macaulay: 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 carried—so regulatory—on large commercial vessels. This is a tiny percentage of our statistics. In the statistics for Stornoway last year, 4% of our casualties were commercial maritime—4%. 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?

Carol Collins: 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 arise.

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 ETVs?

Carol Collins: 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?

Carol Collins: 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 tow.

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 that?

Carol Collins: Given Belfast's infrastructure, it could certainly expand. We could certainly expand further south, so that is an option.

Murdo Macaulay: 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 communities—the maritime picture—but 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 planned—four years—to get that managed safely before you could close the key in any station's door.

Carol Collins: 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?

Carol Collins: Yes, but well managed.

Q426 Chair: But not on the scale and speed proposed?

Carol Collins: Yes.

Murdo Macaulay: 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 that.

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?

Murdo Macaulay: The date of issue of that particular operational advice note was 28 April 2010. That was the date of issue of the work guidance to us.

Q428 Chair: That arose after an incident?

Murdo Macaulay: 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?

Carol Collins: 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.

Carol Collins: 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?

Carol Collins: 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.

previous page contents next page

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 23 June 2011