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


5  Maritime Incident Response Group

66. The Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG), a partnership between the MCA and the Fire and Rescue Service (FRS), was formed in April 2006, to respond to incidents at sea for which fire-fighting, chemical hazard and/or rescue teams are required. The current arrangement is built around training and equipping 50 fire-fighters from 14 coastal fire and rescue services to tackle fires at sea.[117] There is no statutory requirement for the MCA to provide a response capability for fires at sea, but the agency is required to co-ordinate a response.

67. The MCA provides around £500,000 in direct funding annually to support the MIRG provision (Figure 6), whilst the FRS collectively provides around £600,000.[118] The approximate cost of providing a MIRG response (largely through wages and payments for training courses) has been calculated at around £40,000 for each FRS.[119]
Figure 6: MIRG costs to the MCA, £'000
  2006/07 2007/082008/09 2009/102010/11
MIRG costs538 511560 581495*
FRS incident response costs invoiced to MCA 27.912.4 2.43.0 18.8
Costs recovered 00 00 0
*   estimated figure.

†  in addition to running costs.

‡  Any act of assistance that allows a ship to make port in safety is also an act of salvage, the costs of which can be recovered, but only if the MIRG attend at the request of the ships' master.


Source: MCA

68. Following October's Spending Review, it was decided that the arrangements for the MIRG should be reviewed. It is estimated that ending the MIRG provision would save the Department £340,000 annually.[120] The money for a future service will no longer be included in the agency's budget allocation from September 2011.[121]

69. The Chief Fire Officers' Association told us that the indication from the majority of fire and rescue services was that they would not be able to provide a response without MCA funding, and therefore they would withdraw from the MIRG group.[122] Hampshire, Strathclyde, Cornwall and North Wales Fire and Rescue Services confirmed in writing that should there be a withdrawal of funding from the MCA, they would not have the capacity to absorb the extra costs, and could no longer declare the MIRG as a resource (while Northumberland FRS said they would have to consider their position).[123] Gary Walsh, Deputy Fire Officer, East Sussex FRS, told us:

If there was no funding coming forward from the MCA in terms of the MIRG response, then there is no statutory duty for a fire authority to undertake that work. Therefore, we would then suffer in terms of the funding of that response going forward. We would have to look within our operational budget to fund that, and the burden obviously will fall upon the local taxpayer to provide a national response to an incident.[124]

70. Meryvn Kettle, former Project Manager for the National Fire-fighting at Sea project, argued that the potential result would be a return to the previous response situation that was deemed unacceptable by the 2003 'Sea of Change' project.[125]

Deployment

71. With a further incident occurring after the DfT's original Spending Review announcement, the MIRG have attended a total of seven incidents at sea since its inception. The seven incidents are shown in Figure 7.[126]
Figure 7: Incidents attended by the MIRG, 2006-2010
year  vessel name vessel typeincident
2006MV Calypso cruisefire
2006 HT Blade tug fire
2009Saline cargofire
2009 MV Sea Charente cargo fire
2010MS Oscar Wilde ferryfire
2010 Yeoman Bontrup bulk carrier fire
2010FV Athena fish factoryfire

Source: MCA

72. The Government has argued that the MIRG has not been involved in 'any significant incidents' and that there is "little evidence that MIRG has changed the outcome of ship fires".[127] But the Chief Fire Officers' Association told us that there has been the potential for loss of life in each case that the MIRG had been deployed. Steve Demetriou, MIRG Lead Officer, Chief Fire Officers' Association, told us that:

What [the risk assessment] quite clearly says is that, although there have been six incidents in that time period that the MIRG group has attended, actually some of those were significant incidents. There is clear evidence to show that MIRG did improve the arrangements or the set-up of the incident at that time, provided timely advice, equipment, and specially trained firefighters to assist the ship's master in that time of need.[128]

73. Mervyn Kettle described how, during the MIRG's very first mission, a MIRG team was deployed to a serious fire on the cruise ship MV Calypso in the English Channel with 480 persons onboard.[129]The Chief Fire Officers' Association added that during the most recent MIRG deployment to the large fish factory vessel FV Athena, 81 persons were evacuated whilst the crew remained to contain the fire.[130] Steve Brown of the Cornwall FRS told us that in the case of the Athena, "I really believe and my professional opinion is that lives would have been lost on that vessel".[131] Cllr. Foxley believed that had the fire on the Yeoman Bontrup not been put out it would have sunk at the berth. He argued that if that had happened, it would have put a super-quarry out of operation for three months, with major economic implications for the country.[132]

Ships crews

74. The Government point out that all ships' crews are trained in basic fire-fighting techniques.[133] But the Chief Fire Officers Association and local FRS argued that current training standards for crews do not provide for the same level of response as that provided by the MIRG.[134] Steve Demetriou claimed that evidence from Marine Accident Investigation Branch reports had shown that most crews might have a two to four day course in firefighting, but it was a very basic introduction to those skills.[135]

A rationalised MIRG

75. A review of the requirements of the MCA to assist with incidents involving fire, chemical hazards and industrial accidents at sea was commissioned by the MCA and undertaken by BMT Isis Ltd in 2010.[136] The review found that two to three incidents (to which a MIRG-type response would be beneficial) occur each year, and that eliminating the provision was not considered to be an option. The existing form of provision has inherent cost advantages because all the basic training and non-MIRG fire-fighter training time is funded through the Fire and Rescue Service as part of their routine operations.

76. The BMT Isis Ltd review found that the capacity of the MIRG as currently configured is excessive when set against the requirement that was determined by the study. The report estimated that if the strength of the MIRG is better aligned to the risk then the number of trained fire-fighters could be reduced by approximately 50%. We were told that the total cost of a rationalised MIRG, with half the number of team members across the 14 local FRS, could be reduced to £700,000, with the MCA contribution reduced by around £120,000 per year to £380,000 per year.[137]

77. Though the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) has been involved in only seven incidents, its intervention has been significant. Our evidence suggests that while ships' crews have some training their skills do not match the expertise of the MIRG. It is equally clear that without MCA funding, the MIRG will cease to operate. The operations of the MIRG are a matter of national resilience and responsibility to fund them should not be left to the local taxpayer. We are concerned that, as with the Emergency Towing Vessels, the Government has again taken a decision driven by the impetus to reduce expenditure that runs against an independent risk assessment. We recommend that the Government adopt a rationalised MIRG model which is better calibrated to the risk and more cost-effective than the present arrangement.


117   Lothian & Borders FRS recently withdrew their contribution to the MIRG. Back

118   The MCA budget breaks approximately down into: £75,000 for a fire liaison manager (whose role is to coordinate all of the arrangements for MIRG nationally, preplanning, training arrangements, and also to deal with incidents as they occur), a training budget of approximately £290,000 and equipment of £100,000 (Q 302). Back

119   Qq 302, 306 Back

120   "Transport Spending Review Press Notice", Department for Transport press release, 20 October 2010 Back

121   Q 339. Revised from the original cut off date of April, 2011. Back

122   Q 298 Back

123   Ev 145, w121, w130, w136, w172 Back

124   Q 298 Back

125   Ev 90 Back

126   Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Fire at sea - Risks to safety and the environment, and their mitigation: A paper for the Transport Select Committee, 2011, Annex B. Back

127   "Transport Spending Review Press Notice", Department for Transport press release, 20 October 2010 Back

128   Q 288 Back

129   Ev 90 Back

130   Ev 134 Back

131   Q 323 Back

132   Q 441 Back

133   "Transport Spending Review Press Notice", Department for Transport press release, 20 October 2010 Back

134   Ev 145, w121, w130, w136 Back

135   Q 297 Back

136   BMT Isis Ltd., Review of requirements of the MCA to assisting with incidents involving fire, chemical hazards and industrial accidents at sea, Part 1, October 2010 Back

137   Q 304 Back


 
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Prepared 23 June 2011