Coastguard closure 'a matter of life and death' for local rescue services

THE closure of either the Stornoway or Shetland Coastguard stations could mean the difference between life and death for those who rely on a locally-based emergency service, Scottish council leaders have warned.

The uncompromising message was delivered to Britain's shipping minister Mike Pennington at Westminster by the leaders of the four councils in the Highlands and Islands.

The meeting was held to discuss controversial proposals to keep Aberdeen as a 24-hour Coastguard station and to retain either Stornoway or Shetland as a daylight-only operation.

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The leaders of Shetland Islands Council, Orkney Islands Council, Highland Council and Western Isles Council presented the shipping minister with a 33- page dossier, detailing the need for both stations to remain fully operational.

Shetland Islands Council convener Sandy Cluness, who led the delegation, said the council leaders were "united in anger and outrage" at the proposed Coastguard station closures.

And he warned: "Where they are looking at cutting Coastguard services in areas like these, they are effectively dealing with life and death."

Western Isles Council leader Angus Campbell said: "The minister listened carefully to what we had to say. We outlined our case over the increased risks which we think will arise if the proposals to cut the Coastguard stations at either Stornoway or Lerwick go ahead."

He added: "There remains much work done on a detailed assessment and on alternative solutions. The minister assured us that the consultation process was genuine and that he would listen to all views in reaching a conclusion."

The briefing paper presented to the minister claims the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) plan to close three of the five current stations - leaving Scotland with only one full-time Coastguard station to cover more than 6,000 miles of shoreline - has been based on flawed assumptions.

It warns: "Local knowledge is a crucial resource in achieving a prompt response within the first, or golden, hour of any incident.

"Scotland has approximately 60 per cent of the UK coastline. However, the proposals will mean that it has only 25 per cent of the Coastguard stations."

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The report states: "The current proposals appear to be based on a seasonal (day to night range] basis which, while perhaps appropriate for southern UK, where there is a larger leisure market and beach culture, this is not applicable to northern Scotland. The incidents in northern Scotland appear to occur at any time of the year or day with no discernable peaks.

"There also appears to be no weighting given to the severity and duration of an incident.For example a child blown off the beach on an inflatable may only require a ten-minute response, while an event such as the Bourbon Dolphin or Piper Alpha takes many days of 24-hour co-ordination."

The paper also argues that the MCA's consultation document focuses on the search and rescue co-ordination provided by the Coastguard and ignores the many other services that stations such as Stornoway and Shetland provide to the local area.

These include the co-ordination of local resources in dealing with the effects of extreme weather, the co-ordination and local tasking of local emergency helicopter operations and the provision of forecasts and information for local sailors.

A spokesman for the MCA said: "The proposal is designed to deliver a fully integrated national network for the whole UK coastline that can be more resilient, with the flexibility to match workforce to workload within that UK network."

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