What Skills and Knowledge do we require?
All operations room coastguards maintain their skills and knowledge in accordance with a competency based framework. Our required 8 technical competencies are
summarised below and the level of knowledge in each competency is appropriate to staff grading. Working in teams, or “Watches”, we bring all our skills,
past experience and local knowledge together to carry out our role to the best of our ability.
Maritime and Land Based Search Planning
Coastguards are trained in maritime search planning techniques so that in a methodical way, we can combine environmental data such as weather information,
tidal or ocean currents and data regarding the typical behaviour of different sizes and shapes of floating targets to allow us to produce a probable sea area into which to
send Search and Rescue Units. We are also trained in the capabilities of various types of search units including both inshore and all weather lifeboats, helicopters,
fixed wing aircraft, and other vessels that may become available to us at the scene. We plan how we can use the search units that are available to us as effectively as possible,
and then deploy the units according to our plan. We liaise with the crews of all our SAR units to ensure that the search effort continues to a successful conclusion.
Computer modelling assists us with this skill, but even so, local knowledge and experience has its role to play.
The staff are also trained in the same land search planning techniques as the Police, again to give us a structured approach when we task our Coastguard Rescue Teams as
part of a multi-agency response in searching for missing persons.
Radio and telecommunications have developed greatly in the last 20 years. With the adoption of the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System (GMDSS) whereby specified
vessels must carry communications equipment appropriate to the sea area in which they operate, Coastguard radio operators must have a comprehensive knowledge of what
communications equipment should be carried aboard ships and how distress, urgency and safety alerts can be received. All the operations room staff have been examined on their
knowledge and correct use of radio communications equipment to ensure that we are able to communicate professionally using the correct mediums during a Search and Rescue
Coastguard officers keeping a visual lookout to seaward using a powerful pair of binoculars has long been a thing of the past. We have the Automatic Identification System (AIS)
in the operations room which we can use to see the AIS equipped shipping traffic in our District and beyond. Commercial Vessels in the Minch make regular radio calls to Stornoway
Coastguard as they transit North or South bound past designated reporting points, in accordance with a recommendation made by the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).
Operational staff must have an appropriate level of knowledge in Coast Rescue. When we receive emergency calls reporting persons injured, trapped or missing along our cliffs
and shorelines we call out our volunteer Coastguard Rescue Teams. We therefore must have an understanding of their role in a Search and Rescue Operation, their capabilities
and limitations, risk assessment processes, their equipment and operating procedures.
Chart and Map Work
We use admiralty (paper) charts to locate and plot positions of incidents, vessel tracks and search areas, therefore all operations room staff must be adept in this particular
skill. We also use ordnance survey maps and although we have computer mapping, we hold paper maps in the operations room which we can use to maintain a plot of an incident or
ongoing search. When an incident is handed over to the next duty Watch, these “plots” become part of the handover process and along with white boards, these visual aids help to
make the handover as smooth as possible.
Although Coastguard Operations Room staff come from a variety of backgrounds, in order to serve our maritime community we are required to have a sound general knowledge of all
sorts of commercial and leisure maritime activities. Some of this includes knowledge of different types of vessels and installations, types of cargos and their transportation,
marine terminology, the IALA buoyage system in the UK, the collision regulations, provision of emergency towage, some shipping regulations and port operations. Some of this is
achieved through study but also through local knowledge of the area of operation gained from training visits and on the job experience gathered.
We are all aware of the sensitivity of our rugged and beautiful coastline, and the importance of protecting the environment for generations to come. Stornoway Coastguard has
its role to play here, and the staff are trained to be able to support the MCA’s Counter Pollution and Salvage Branch when we have an incident that could pose a threat to the
marine environment. We must be able to receive, assess and report on actual or potential threats of pollution in our waters to ensure that a timely, measured and effective
response can be initiated and that other interested authorities are informed accordingly.
In addition, with the Coastguard Tug (stationed in response to recommendations from the Lord Donaldson Report into the Braer oil tanker disaster) in our District, the staff are
aware of the capabilities and limitations of the tug and also the operating procedures that apply to the vessel.
All operations room staff are required to have a knowledge of reading and interpreting weather forecasts, charts and the associated terminology. MRCC Stornoway provides regular
weather/maritime safety information radio broadcasts to vessels plying the District.
With the Station being in one of the most exposed parts of the UK, the staff here have experience of extreme weather and fully understand the importance of working with other
Agencies in warning the community, preparing, providing assistance and helping with recovery for these events.
Search and Rescue Response and Co-ordination
The role of HM Coastguard is laid out in the Coastguard Act 1925.
“HM Coastguard is responsible for the initiation and co-ordination of civil maritime search and rescue within the UK maritime search and rescue region.
This includes the mobilisation, organisation and tasking of adequate resources to respond to either persons either in distress at sea, or to persons at risk of injury or death
on the cliffs or shoreline of the UK.”
In order to carry out our role the Watches at Stornoway Coastguard are required to draw together their skills, local knowledge and experience of the Stornoway District in
order to prioritise emergency situations, record and analyse data using various computerized systems, understand how to integrate into a multi – agency emergency response and
be able to implement major incident procedures if required. We also must have a thorough knowledge of the SAR facilities within our extensive district, their call out methods
and their operating procedures.
All new staff complete extensive training courses and exams at the MCA’s Training Centre at Highcliffe in Dorset. In addition, we have to pass bi-annual local knowledge tests,
something that has been a requirement for staff for many years.
The SAR Mission Co-ordinators (SMCs) who lead our Watches are responsible for the prosecution of SAR operations and therefore hold an SMC qualification which is re-validated
every five years.
We maintain our competencies by carrying out regular training and by building upon previous experience. This is so that we can co-ordinate Search and Rescue operations to the
best of our ability for the West Coast of Scotland. Whilst use of all these skills is not (thankfully) required during every watch, we maintain a state of readiness so that
should the worst happen, then we are ready to take action.