Written evidence from Martin Collins (MCA
1.1 I am a serving Coastguard Watch Manager with
a total of 24 years involvement in Maritime Search and Rescue.
I was a volunteer lifeboat crew on an independent inshore lifeboat
in the Solent for five years, during which time I was also an
Auxiliary Coastguard at Solent Coastguard. In 1992 I obtained
a fulltime Watch Officer position at MRCC Clyde until I gained
promotion in 1999 to Watch Manager at MRCC Stornoway.
1.2 Since I started with the Coastguard I have
seen various changes in the service, such as the introduction
of computers and the advancement of technology to assist in locating
persons and vessels requiring assistance, some of which I have
helped to develop. I feel that my input to this inquiry may be
valid and helpful.
1.3 Below I intend to put forward my personal
interpretations and observations about the subjects that the Transport
Committee are looking into.
The views expressed are my own and are not those
of any other individual, group or organisation.
2.1 The year of 2010 saw five major announcements
that separately may seem sound in their reasoning but, collectively,
could vastly reduce the UK's ability to respond to major maritime
incidents within the UK Search and Rescue Region.
These announcements are as follows:
- Cancellation of the Nimrod Project.
- Failure to renew the Emergency Towing Vessel
(ETV) contract from September 2011.
- Cancellation of the Maritime Incident Response
- Cancellation of the SAR-H Project for the replacement
of Search and Rescue Helicopters.
- Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) consultation
to reduce the number of Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres
and Coastguard staff by half and leaving only two 24 hour stations
for the whole of the UK.
3.1 The Nimrod Maritime Recognisance Aircraft
provided a vital platform to conduct long range search and rescue
missions both in the North Sea and into the North Atlantic. Its
speed, range and endurance made it ideal as a first response to
long range distress situations. It was fitted with radar capable
of searching the sea surface, it had advanced communications equipment
that enabled the crew to act as On Scene Commander for directing
surface and airborne search units. The duty Search and Rescue
aircraft was also fitted with liferafts, food and water that could
be dropped to people in the water that would allow them to survive
until ships or helicopters could rescue them.
3.2 The Nimrod also provided safety cover for
SAR helicopters during long range taskings, such as medical evacuations.
They could located the vessel before the helicopter was near the
scene so there was no time wasted by the helicopter and then escort
the helicopter back to land, providing communications throughout.
4.1 The ETV's are the UK's insurance policy against
major pollution resulting from a vessel grounding. The history
of their inception is well documented so I will not go into this.
The ETV stationed in the Minch, off Northwest Scotland,
is the only ocean-going tug of its size in this area. There are
no large ports and no oil or gas installations that require support
from this type of vessel so there is no opportunity or reason
for commercial companies to locate a similar vessel in this area.
Currently the nearest vessel of this type and size is around 18
hours steaming time away, a vessel would be aground and leaking
before it reached the area.
4.2 The Minch sees around 2.5 million tonnes
of shipping per month passing through the area, everything from
coasters and mobile rigs to chemical, oil and gas tankers. The
ETV based in the Minch carries out passive escorts of vessels
over 50,000 gross tonnes or laden with more than 10,000 tonnes
of dangerous cargo. In 2010 the Minch ETV undertook 115 "taskings",
three of which were non-escort duties and included HMS Astute
(aground), the coaster Red Duchess (engine failure) and Yeoman
Bontrup (major fire).
4.3 With an estimated £120 million to clean
up after the Sea Empress grounded off Milford Haven and reports
of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill costs reaching $33 million a day,
then surly the few million a year for the four ETVs make economic
sense, even if they stop just one major spill?
4.4 One answer to raising extra finance to pay
for the ETVs could be a renegotiation of the contract so that
the salvage payment percentage for the MCA is greater than at
present. Also some means of charging laden tankers that require
an ETV escort through the likes of the Minch would bring in some
capital, although this should not be too higher charge as to discourage
vessels from travelling through these areas in bad weather and
endangering the vessel, cargo and environment.
5.1 MIRG Teams are specially trained and equipped
Fire Fighters who can be airlifted to the scene of a fire using
a Search and Rescue helicopter. They can provide vital extra time
to evacuate passengers from a cruise ship or ferry and can be
used in remote areas of the country as a front line response to
fires on islands and remote peninsulas.
5.2 The majority of the outlay on these teams
has already been paid for in terms of purchase of equipment and
training. The teams are all qualified with the only regular outlay
being refresher training and equipment replacement. As a result
I feel that any saving from the withdrawal of this service is
5.3 An alteration to the callout procedure for
these teams may see them used more then at present. Currently
I feel that the procedure is time consuming and detracts from
the overall aim of the process. This involves contacting the MCA
Fire Liaison Officer, Counter Pollution and Salvage Officer and
Duty Area Officer, briefing each on the incident and then holding
a conference call to discuss the MIRG tasking with the Watch Manager.
This all takes time and removes the Watch Manager from the rest
of the incident while this is taking place. A streamlining of
the process would be advantageous.
6.0 SAR-H PROJECT
6.1 The SAR-H project was to provide the UK with
Search and Rescue helicopter cover for the next 25 years. This
included using modern aircraft with up to date equipment and having
the same aircraft type at all the bases around the UK, meaning
that crews and aircraft were easily interchangeable.
6.2 The reason for the cancellation of this project
is not in question but the effects of it could leave gaps in the
SAR helicopter coverage.
As I understand it, the contract with CHC Helicopters
who currently run the MCA contract for the four Coastguard helicopter
bases around the UK will finish next year. The aircraft based
at Stornoway and Shetland look likely to go to the Irish Republic
where CHC will be supplying the Irish Coastguard Helicopters and
there is nothing currently in place to provide an alternative.
6.3 The RAF and Royal Navy SAR helicopters are
an aging fleet of Sea Kings which, although good at their job
and provide an excellent service, must require more maintenance
and have higher running costs than a more modern aircraft. These
aircraft will have to take up the slack if a replacement for the
four Coastguard bases can't be found in time, putting more pressure
on the units who run and maintain them.
6.4 As this project is such a large undertaking
I have no immediate resolution but its demise further compounds
the cumulative effects on Search and Rescue effectiveness.
7.0 H.M. COASTGUARD
7.1 Originally I was planning to comment about
various aspects of the MCA's consultation document but I felt
that this would end up being a list of criticisms so I have chosen
a different approach. I want to look at how I feel we can improve
the Coastguard service of today so that we have a Coastguard service
worthy of its name in future.
7.2 There is already a planned roll-out of upgraded
I.T. equipment to replace the ageing servers and PCs currently
in use at the MRCCs around the UK. This will hopefully solve most
of the long term issues that we have experienced in recent years.
Software upgrades will give the most benefit and hopefully improved
broadband speeds will accompany these upgrades. The use of electronic
charts, easier map search facilities and logical information and
contact databases would improve speed and efficiency.
7.3 The Automatic Identification System (AIS)
is a very good tool and a receiver placed on every remote aerial
site would be of great benefit in monitoring shipping around the
UK. Currently in the Northwest of Scotland there are blank areas
that could be filled with little outlay. To offset this expenditure
there could be an opportunity to allow shipping companies, ports
and harbours to have access to the MCA AIS data via a subscription
service. There are already a number of websites that supply this
data from receivers run by private individuals but these do not
have the coverage or reliability that the MCA can offer, making
a subscription service a viable proposition. Add to this the sharing
of AIS data with other Government Agencies for the tracking of
vessels for the likes of law enforcement and customs and the benefit
of the equipment increases.
7.4 Savings can always be made by the rationalisation
of the number of MRCCs around the UK but this has to be done to
maintain or improve the level of service that the MCA currently
supplies and cannot compromise its integrity. I see little advantage
to moving to a two-tier Coastguard with day stations. This would
create more problems than it would solve and take the Coastguard
back 10 to 15 years when there were MRCCs and MRSCs. This brought
about a "them and us" type mentality within the service
with the MRCCs thinking they were better than the MRSCs. With
every station being equal, the working relationship between the
stations improved dramatically and I would like to keep it that
8.0 FUTURE H.M.
8.1 I feel that it is beyond my pay scale to
suggest which of my friends and colleagues should have their MRCC
closed but I will outline a concept.
8.2 This concept is more of a slimming down of
H.M Coastguard with the same, if not better, savings as the consultation
document. It makes use of the current estates to their full potential
and maintains a 24 hour coastal presence in all areas.
8.3 The concept has a total of 12 MRCC's that
are operational for 24 hours a day and operating in pairs, much
as they do now. The buildings would still have to be heated and
most electrical systems would have to be maintained, whether occupied
or not. So why not make them work?
The staffing required for these 12 stations would
see watch levels of between five and seven members of staff, day
or night, which will allow a reduction to four or five for leave
and training. This would make a total staffing level of around
280 operational Coastguards. The staff numbers would be assigned
to each station by looking at the average number and length of
incidents over the last five years and would include other activities
that various areas deal with, such as traffic reporting areas
and oil and gas installation exercises.
8.4 Retaining the 12 MRCC's will vastly reduce
the initial cost of relocating staff, will make staff retention
more likely and will give a more varied source of recruitment
in the future.
Added to this, local knowledge will be retained and
the larger areas of responsibility for each MRCC will increase
the workload and avoid the "skills fade" referred too
in the consultation document. With correct planning these MRCC's
will use the current MCA estates and thus reduce expenditure on
8.5 As the plan to use duel kilostreams (wired
links from a remote aerial site to the MRCC) has been budgeted
for under the MCA's current plan then I would utilise this facility
for the resilience of the overall system. One kilostream would
go to the local station and one to its paired station. This will
allow one station to take total control of two areas if the need
arose. There would also be the ability for a third (another flank)
station to be able to gain remote access to the aerial sites of
another for added resilience and to relieve pressure if required.
This should also see a reduction in cost when establishing the
infrastructure as there will be shorter distances for the kilostream
runs, when compared to the MCA's plan.
8.6 The current Regional Business Units based
at Aberdeen, Swansea and Yarmouth could be centrally located at
the MCA HQ in Southampton. I see that there is little to be gained
from maintaining these units on the coast and this would save
an estimated £1 million per annum. Each MRCC would have one
manager to oversee local staffing, estate management and civil
contingency liaison with partner agencies. There would also be
one Administration Assistant per MRCC.
8.7 There is scope for H.M. Coastguard to increase
its area of responsibility and expand its expertise in Search
and Rescue to inland areas. Currently the Police are responsible
for all inland SAR but with more pressure being put on the Police
to save money and reduce numbers, there is no reason why the Coastguard
can't take on the inland SAR co-ordination roll. That is what
we're trained to do. Using the current mountain, fell, lowland
and cave rescue teams, backed up with specialist SAR officers,
and our knowledge of SAR helicopter operations, this would allow
the Police to devote more resources to their primary rolls.
9.1 The accumulation of cancelled projects and
future planed reductions within H.M. Coastguard would have an
effect on the UK's ability to react to a major maritime incident.
- 1. Loss of Nimrod, the only long range SAR
aircraft that the UK had.
- 2. Loss of the four ETVs with no commercial
replacements likely in some areas.
- 3. Withdrawal of MIRG for ship and remote
area fire fighting.
- 4. No current future for the UK SAR helicopter
- 5. A 50% reduction in the number of Coastguards
9.2 The UK and H.M. Coastguard are regarded as
world leaders in Search and Rescue with other countries using
us as an example of best practice. If we want this to be the case
in five years time then we have to think carefully about how we
take this forward. We can become a world renowned organisation
or a laughing stock, the choice is ours.