MVS Poole visit HM Coastguard

On Wednesday 29th November, 12 of our team met at the National Maritime Operations Centre at Fareham for a visit to see how the new Coastguard set up worked and a look around the Centre. We were taken to a very well equipped Conference room on the 2nd floor where Karen, a Senior Maritime Operations Officer, gave us an excellent presentation about the past set up and recent changes to the structure of the Coastguard service around our coasts.

Under the old arrangements there were 18 Maritime Rescue Control Centres and these have been reduced to 9, at Dover, Aberdeen, Shetland, Stornoway, Belfast, Holyhead, Milford Haven, Falmouth, and Humber all under the overall control of the N.M.O.C. at Fareham.   A massive upgrade of communications has ensured that any of the above centres can take over control of any other centre by logging in appropriately, and in a live exercise the Fareham Centre actually successfully ran the whole country for a day. The benefits of the new arrangements ensure that control for any area will not be lost for IT breakdowns, staff shortages or even for training requirements.   At any one time slack Centres can be tasked to take over a busier Centre, or at least help when necessary.   Each centre is then subdivided into Districts/Areas etc, (not the correct terminology) much as before who are can be tasked for the day to day coastal operations – cliff rescue, mud rescues etc.   Before the changes there was a lot of adverse publicity and discussion about the risks involved but in practice, after a period of bedding in, the system is working well.   New staff have been recruited and a new pay structure together with a lifting of the restriction of staff having to have sea experience has built up the staff levels to an acceptable level, training has been completed (and is ongoing) and any shortcomings we felt were present soon after the changes have been overcome.

The talk was accompanied by a comprehensive powerpoint presentation, with maps of the country showing the before and after locations of Centres, the methods by which Radio signals from vessels, aircraft, EPIRBs and all manner of devices find their way to the NMOC and action is taken as required.

After the talk we turned around and the blinds were raised to reveal the operations room, 2 floors below, a room about twice, if not more than, the size of the North Lounge and we had a Bird’s Eye view of the Operations Centre at work.   The floor is divided into pods (8 in all with a further 6 out of view beyond a sliding partition wall), and each pod has 6 or 8 work stations with 4 VDU screens per person.   I counted 34 work stations across the floor.   The screens at each work station show various data, maps, charts etc. and each Officer by logging in can be linked to whichever Centre is required.

They have an enormous amount of data at their disposal, including a glossary of local names so that in the event of a centre in Scotland being tasked to organise a rescue near Old Harry, for instance, they can quickly ascertain that the proper name is Handfast Point.   Generally 1 pod will be allocated to a centre, Solent for instance is always manned, and one immediately in front of the Watch Commander is dedicated to Aircraft Operations for the whole country. Large screens mounted on the wall enable the whole room to view a particular set of data as necessary but in general always shows up to date weather and tidal information.   There appeared to be about a dozen officers on duty while we were there, some under training which in general is carried out live or on-line.   There is also a mobile VDU screen which can be linked to a remote centre, much like a Skype connection only better, enabling the Fareham officers to feel almost “in the room” with their colleagues at Dover or wherever.   After a short Any Questions session we left with our thanks to Karen and adjourned to a local hostelry where lunch was taken.   If a further visit is organised later next year I strongly recommend going along, 2 hours very worthwhile spent.

I have just finished reading a short news article about a rescue which took place last June 203 nautical miles west southwest of The Isles of Scilly.   The crew of 3 on a small sailing vessel on passage from Newfoundland had managed to contact the Coastguard with a Mayday message by Satellite phone, as one of their crew was desperately unwell.   A Helicopter was sent on a 530 mile round trip. “The Coastguard Helicopter arrived on scene just before 4pm, following communications from two small aircraft in the area and the Aeronautical Rescue Centre in Fareham.   Waves were lashing the small boat from every angle.   When the Coastguard was unable to rescue the casualty from the deck of the boat or the boat’s rubber dinghy, they had no option but to ask the 65-year old to jump into the freezing water so he could be winched to safety.   It was a desperately difficult rescue requiring incredible precision.   The rescue was so far out to sea the Helicopter had to refuel on the Isles of Scilly before safely landing at Treliske Hospital in Truro”

What contrasts, a frightening situation out at sea being controlled by the Officers we saw in the nice air-conditioned, calm and quiet control room in Fareham.

Peter Lockwood – 6th December 2017