Photo: Barry James Wilson
The BBC H2O show has raised the profile of the Coastguard reorganisation debate. There is a BBC article that summarises the position .
At Solent Protection Society, we have been concerned about the impact of these changes on Solent users. We went to see Peter Dymond, Chief Coastguard, and an account of that discussion led to the Coastguard Reorganisation feature on our website. When the programme is completed, there will be a national network of 10 Operations Centres with a National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) at its hub located in Fareham (which will effectively replace Lee On Solent)
We were surprised at the positive attitude towards the changes being taken by Peter Dymond. Far from being apologetic about ‘cutbacks’, Peter clearly set out the perceived benefits arising from what he regarded as a long overdue reorganisation.
We are not totally convinced that all the changes are beneficial, or have been fully thought through, but we do believe that there will be many real gains from this reorganisation.
There are many myths about Coastguard that cloud the argument. The following may help to clarify the situation
1: The Coastguard manages search and rescue around our coasts. It does NOT direct shipping; it does NOT have power or resources to control immigration or smuggling. It has virtually no waterborne resources of its own, but relies instead on RNLI and other voluntary rescue organisations (Coastguard does require vessels carrying hazardous goods to report when transiting Traffic Separation Schemes (TSS))
2: The control centres (currently called MRCC) have not had visual watch over our shores since 1979. That has led to the growth of the voluntary National Coastwatch Institute which is gradually being integrated into the Coastguard resources – though we have detected some residual tensions that should be ironed out.
3: Primary local knowledge resources rest with the Coastguard shore teams that are NOT being reduced (and indeed their management and training resources are being increased). In the Solent, the teams based at Hillhead, Selsey, Hayling, Portsmouth, Lymington, Southampton, Bembridge Newport, Ventnor, Ryde and Needles will continue to provide the same coastal search, rope, mud and shallow water rescue response as they do now. This coupled with the local knowledge of RNLI, Coastwatch and other volunteer rescue teams means that the reduction in the number of Control centres has less impact than may have been supposed.
4: The reduction in helicopter services is serious, but is beyond the control of Coastguard. It arises from the decision taken by MOD to withdraw from civilian search and rescue, making it necessary for the government to grant a new contract to a private company. This is one of the largest private sector contracts awarded by government and has received close scrutiny by Whitehall, including the Treasury. The new helicopters will have greater capacity and longer range, but the loss of the Portland helicopter means that the load on the helicopter based at Lee on Solent will be increased. That must cause some concern.
5: Not often discussed is the loss of ‘top cover’ that used to be provided by RAF Nimrod aircraft when Coastguard were managing deep sea SAR operations. As this is not a Solent matter, we will not discuss that further, although we understand that in most cases ad hoc arrangements can be made.
In any major change like that which Coastguard is experiencing, there are bound to be problems. Some will be transitional when only half the organisation has been cut over to new systems. And who has not had operating problems, when faced with a new computer system?
We raised a number of questions with Coastguard. These are reviewed in the pertinent questions section of our website. However there are some issues where we think the answers need to be improved.
1: There are numerous questions relating to the recommended use of flares and, especially, the disposal of flares.The RYA has published useful advice on these matters, but it would be useful if the Coastguard position was clearly stated.
2: We are told that “If you call ‘Solent Coastguard’, you will be answered “. The problem is that if the new centre at Fareham is busy, then the answer would come from Swansea or Dover (or Aberdeen). Will they respond as “Solent Coastguard”? Or just “Coastguard”?. This needs to be clarified.
3: If Coastguard are to convince us that the loss of local knowledge is minimal, then we would hope to see closer integration of Coastwatch into the SAR resource base. We would encourage Coastguard to explain more fully the strengthening of the coastal teams. This would reassure the public.
4: While the scope of air support is beyond Coastguard control, we must hope that the proposed helicopter deployment will be kept under close scrutiny and reviewed if found necessary.
The Coastguard changes are massive. By and large, the changes are being made for positive reasons, but the whole system will be vulnerable during the transition. Many details remain to be clarified.
We shall continue to observe and report on developments in our news, blog, and Coastguard Reorganisation pages. More background explanation is available in the SAR pages of our “How the Solent works” section.
We have invited HM Coastguard to present these changes at a major Winter Lecture talk on 22nd January at the Solent University Conference Centre in Southampton. The meeting is open to the public, and reservations can be made on our Events Page.