The situation is that there were 18 Marine Rescue Coordination Centres (MRCC) (already reduced to 15), grouped into pairs. (Lee on Solent and Portland are a pair) This is so that resources can be shared. If any one of the coordination centres becomes overloaded or possibly even goes out of action (possibly because a JCB has gone through the telephone cables!) then the other MRCC station in the pair can take some of the strain. Each pair is responsible for a fixed area of coastline and sea with access to the radio communications and data for that area only.
The new arrangement will take advantage of modern communications and information technology using systems that have been tried and tested in the emergency services field but with some upgrading. 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. This national network will be fully flexible in that all data will be common and available to all and radio communications can be made available to each centre as required. Each centre, including the NMOC, will be responsible for an area of coast and sea on a day by day basis but the flexibility of the network allows Coastguard to increase or decrease the size of that area based on known and predicted risks and events. The NMOC will decide and direct the shape of the national network on a daily basis.
There will be significant gains in flexibility afforded by the national network such as the ability to allow centres to undertake team training whilst another centre(s) takes over their normal area of operations or if a centre is faced with a ‘Costa Concordia’ incident, the centre can be allowed to concentrate on that incident and its other activities and incidents can be handled by another centre(s).
Normally, SAR incidents in the Solent and mid-channel area will be initiated and co-ordinated by the NMOC. There will be 96 coastguard staff based at the NMOC and up to a quarter of those could be on duty at any time depending on the known and predicted risks and events.
The flexibility of the network will allow operations to continue in the event of the loss of a centre and the Data Centre at Fareham will be mirrored in Aberdeen, and the Coastguard Operations Centre at Dover is also a standby control centre in Dover that can be manned in the event of Fareham (and Aberdeen) being disabled.
It is the flexibility of having resources where they are best suited, coupled with the data and communications backup that represents the strength of the new system.
Managing Major Incidents
Where a major incident (for example the grounding of the Napoli in Lyme Bay, or the shedding of cargo such as containers or timber in the Channel) occurs, the incident will either be managed or overseen by the NMOC but the Secretary of State’s Representative (SOSREP) will take command as at present.
HM Coastguard has not had visual watch since the late 1970s and there is clearly room to question whether the new arrangements will be sufficient to provide local knowledge in a search and rescue scenario. However, the local indigenous SAR resources ie RNLI Lifeboats and Coastguard Rescue Teams will continue to function as they do now and quite rightly, it is these assets which need to have the detailed local knowledge and that won’t change. Also, HM Coastguard is carrying out a joint project with Ordnance Survey to develop a vernacular database of local names in addition to those that appear on a map which will be available to all.