Coastguard chief says changes will improve service

RADICAL modernisation plans which will see the closure of 10 coastguard stations, including Great Yarmouth’s, will improve rather than weaken the service, it has been claimed.

The chief executive of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, Sir Alan Massey, made his pledge following a visit to the town’s North Quay coastguard station on Monday to brief staff on the plans.

Local lifeboatmen and fishermen have been among those criticising the cost-cutting proposals, highlighting the loss of local knowledge in a set-up which would see only two coastguard stations operational at night when East coast incidents would be handled as far away as Southampton.

The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents coastguards, has also voiced strong concerns about reducing the number of stations and drawn attention to busy summer days when the Yarmouth coastguards might be handling upwards of 30 beach-related incidents just along the coastline from Lincolnshire to Suffolk.

Sir Alan said that during his tour of British coastguard stations, being carried out as part of public consultation which ends on March 24, the concerns raised had been consistent.

He said: “People have been asking, ‘Are we sure safety will not be jeopardised? Will we be lacking local knowledge by taking away so many coastguard stations? Will the new technology we are introducing be reliable? Have we looked at the risks and have we got them covered?’”

Sir Alan said while it was important to proceed very carefully he was confident about the potential of the new streamlined system to cope and stressed the fact the coastguard service had down-sized many times, there having been 28 stations in the 1970s.

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He said local knowledge was transferable and it was safer to have it stored on a computer database than in the head of an officer who might not be on watch when it was needed.

Local experience would also be retained as staff from every region would be migrating to the remaining coastguard stations, he added.

Sir Alan said the new set-up, using modern communications technology, would offer greater flexibility and if there was a rush of incidents or something major happening on the East coast, staff from other stations could be moved across to deal with the crisis.

He said: “This will make us much more resilient nationally. For example, Falmouth and Brixham coastguard stations cover for each other if one is out of action; but if both those stations are lost that would currently cause a major problem in answering calls.”

Sir Alan said in putting together their proposals they had sought to ensure the service would not be weakened, but he was now convinced they would actually improve it.