Why Coastguard change is necessary

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As the Transport Select Committee calls for a full inquiry into the proposed revamp of the Coastguard, its Chief Executive, Sir Alan Massey explains here some of the thinking behind the radical plans for reform of the emergency service.

Last year I joined the Maritime and Coastguard Agency as its new Chief Executive after over 30 years serving in the Royal Navy, writes Vice Admiral Sir Alan Massey. I was aware before joining that HM Coastguard has a proud history and many traditions, but what became very evident early on was just how much change has been intrinsic to the service and its people. The history of HM Coastguard has been one of continual evolution to meet the demands and opportunities presented by each generation.

We started life as a service formed in January 1822 by a Treasury committee to act against smuggling, yet within 10 years we were part of the Admiralty with naval-style uniform and drill, and training on large guns for coastal defence.

During the 19th century maritime communication was generally limited to line-of-sight visual signalling and noise-makers. Coastguard stations overlooked major shipping lanes and hazards, maintaining constant watch day and night. By 1912 all the major passenger liners were equipped with radio transmitters; this heralded the decline in the use of shipboard visual signalling and led to the reduction in Coastguard stations, lookouts and personnel.

The introduction of search and rescue helicopters in the 1960s and 70s transformed our rescue capability. The move from two-man cliff top lookouts with binoculars to a network of coordination centres listening for radio distress calls also took place through the 1970s.

Fortunately, maritime losses of life and ships have today reached historically low levels, but serious hazards still abound as we change the way we use the sea and coast. Yachting and leisure boating have increased dramatically in popularity and generate at least 60% of the MCA’s current search and rescue activity. Fishing has changed beyond recognition in the last generation, yet still remains many times more dangerous than construction or farming. Ships have become vastly bigger, while safe navigation is becoming increasingly constrained by offshore developments such as oil rigs and wind farms.

So why does HM Coastguard need reshaping? The reason is the same as it has always been throughout our proud history. Shipping and seafarers have changed, technology has advanced and public expectations have escalated. We have to keep step with the times and exploit both technical progress and the increasing capacity and skills of our people, to provide the most capable, efficient and resilient service that we possibly can.

One example is in making the best of the extraordinary information technology now available to us. Ships today continuously transmit their identity, position, course and much more. We are therefore evolving new roles for the Coastguard in monitoring large and small vessels all around our coasts. Instead of reacting to accidents after they happen, our watch-keeping Coastguard officers will be able to switch increasingly to long range surveillance, monitoring and prevention tasks.

Using the latest technology also means it is largely immaterial where coordination centres are geographically located. Instead of being able to look after only one stretch of coast our new centres, linked together into a resilient, integrated network, will be able to keep a close watch on what is happening at sea anywhere around the UK’s coasts. We can improve the safety service, but with fewer people, in fewer locations, tackling more challenging jobs with new skills and getting better pay in return.

The public often worries that if the Coastguard is not directly watching over their piece of coast, they are not safe. This is not the case. We of course recognise the value of local knowledge, and we have always made good use of those who know their ‘patch’ best. This will continue within the new coordination network. Watch-keeping Coastguards will draw on the local knowledge of those who live and work in the UK’s coastal communities: the RNLI lifeboatmen, the volunteers of the National Coastwatch Institution and Sea Safety Group, local harbourmasters, rescue helicopter crews, and indeed the volunteers of our own Coastguard Rescue Service (CRS). The CRS consists of 3,500 volunteer community-based Coastguard Rescue Officers who are organised in 368 shore-based teams around the UK. We propose increasing the regular Coastguards who support this service. These teams will continue to be our link with your local coastal communities and they will maintain their strong working relationships with all those partner organisations who share our commitment to safety and search and rescue at sea.

Our existing centres manage many hundreds of miles of coastline which has already been greatly assisted by increasing use of technology, such as global mapping and information services as well as satellite imagery. We will maximise and standardise such innovation and support it with appropriate training, as well as providing a 24/7 provision from within coastal communities by the CRS.

Seafarers may also worry that fewer coordination centres will put them at increased risk. I can assure you that this is not the case. Our current radio aerial sites around the UK coast, and the radio frequencies held by HM Coastguard, will be retained. Closing centres will not interfere with our ability to monitor and respond to emergency radio calls, Digital Selective Calling, Distress and Urgency alerts or routine calls on Very High Frequency and Medium Frequency – wherever they come from. These systems will continue and will be monitored continuously by operators at the new centres. The existing national 999 emergency telephone system will similarly remain in place in all coastal areas, and we will continue to respond swiftly and efficiently to all 999/112 emergency calls. Our reaction time in sending appropriate rescue assets to the scene of any incident will remain at least as quick as it is now.

Change is rarely easy, and I appreciate that for many Coastguards these proposals are challenging. My senior managers and I have been visiting all our coordination centres to explain the proposals and listen to the wide range of views and opinions of our staff.

I encourage everyone who is interested to read and consider our consultation document and provide us with feedback. The consultation runs until 24 March 2010 and I look forward to hearing from you.