Local knowledge will be lost when the Coastguard service is dramatically overhauled, its most senior directors have admitted.
Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Massey, appearing before a powerful Parliamentary committee, was accused of presiding over a “haphazard” approach to assessing the risks of the reforms that could leave Northern Ireland without a dedicated base.
A major Government overhaul of the service sees Northern Ireland’s Bangor base in direct competition with the Liverpool centre for survival under the reforms. Local political parties have united in opposition to the plans.
Vice-Admiral Massey was forced to admit to the committee at Westminster yesterday that he could not guarantee every emergency call made to the new supercentres, based in Aberdeen and Southampton, would be answered.
MPs on the transport committee called an urgent session on the closure plans that will mean just eight of the UK's 18 Coastguard centres will remain as part of a radical modernisation programme, and only three of those will run round-the-clock.
Philip Naylor, director of maritime services at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, told them the way Coastguards were trained meant they did not need to know
an area to gather the knowledge they required from callers.
But that sparked surprise among the committee members who questioned why all Coastguard officers were made to sit exams every two years to test their local knowledge.
Coastguard regulations also state that all employees must familiarise themselves with local geography and potential hazards.
Mr Naylor insisted that local knowledge had, on a number of occasions over the last few years, led to Coastguards “rushing in” and going to the wrong place because they had made the “wrong assumption about what they thought they knew”.
He admitted that the exams would be scrapped in their current form, adding: “Officers will be required to have a degree of coastal knowledge and knowledge of their maritime domain.
“There needs to be a level of availability of information about a stretch of coastline. At the moment that tends to be through an individual acquiring local knowledge through inspection of charts and maps.
“There are many ways of gathering knowledge of topography and landmarks, whether by studying information that's out there on the web or studying charts.”
The trial period for testing out the plans is due to end on March 2015 and is expected to save around £7.5m a year after that.