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


Written evidence from Martin Collins (MCA 109)

1.0  INTRODUCTION

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.

2.0  OVERVIEW

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 Group (MIRG).
  • 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.

3.0  NIMROD

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.

4.0  EMERGENCY TOWING VESSELS (ETV)

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.

5.0  MARITIME INCIDENT RESPONSE GROUP (MIRG)

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 minimal.

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 way.

8.0  FUTURE H.M. COASTGUARD CONCEPT

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 property leasing.

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.

9.0  SUMMARY

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 fleet.
  • 5.  A 50% reduction in the number of Coastguards and MRCCs.

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.

April 2011



 
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Prepared 23 June 2011