Published: 00:01, 16 July 2014
Lives could be put at risk if coastguard station closures go ahead, according to campaigners.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency plans to close half of Britain's Coastguard Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres, including Thames station, which covers the Kent coast.
The closure means Kent rescues could be coordinated from Southampton or even Scotland.
Dennis O’Connor, an ex-Coastguard officer and leader of campaign group Coastguard SOS is concerned the lack of local knowledge could have fatal consequences.
He said: "If a 999 call comes in the control centres task local teams but they could task the wrong crew or station because they miss the fact there’s another boat that could reach the casualty quicker. You cannot rely wholly on technology, it will only take you so far.
“I hope as a human being no one loses their lives as a result of these changes. It will be too late then, but the reality is it could very well happen.
“Summer is the busiest time of year when you have people floating off on lilos, falling off cliffs and the rest of it, like they do every year. It could go wrong at any time but I hope it won’t get to that stage.”
Under current plans Thames station, in Essex, is due to close in summer 2015 - leaving Dover acting as a back-up to a centralised control station.
According to Maritime and Coastguard Agency figures, released under the Freedom of Information Act, in 2013 Dover was “critically understaffed” with 60% of shifts staffed below minimum safe levels.
Mr O’Connor warned the national closure programme has demoralised coastguards, exacerbating recruiting problems and leading to staff shortages.
“They [Maritime and Coastguard Agency] are desperately trying to employ people to shore up the service” he said.
“Officers have lost confidence in the agency to run the service and they are fearful of the closure programme and the fact that someone is going to pay a very high price. They do not want to be the fall guys.”
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has refuted the claims.
A spokesman said: "Safety is our top priority and the new Coastguard structure will improve both the efficiency and effectiveness of coordinating search and rescue around the whole of the UK.
“The public will notice no reduction in the service. 999 calls and distress broadcasts will be dealt with and search and rescue missions coordinated as they are now. There will be no reduction in front line rescue resources, with the availability of Coastguard Rescue Teams, lifeboats, rescue helicopters and other rescue assets unaffected.
"The new structure will enable the National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC) and all other Coastguard Operations Centres (CGOC) to coordinate any incident around the UK coast. This will mean workload and incidents will be managed locally but with a much better support network available nationally.”
Mr O’Connor has vowed to continue the fight against station closures.
He said: “We’re not getting paid to do this. We could have walked away but we haven’t and we won’t because this is the right thing to do.”
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