The government is gambling with the safety of lives and the environment with its plan to axe four emergency towing vessels (ETVs) as part of the public spending cutbacks, the maritime union Nautilus has warned. Mervyn Kettle reports


Maritime union Nautilus is alarmed by the government's announcement that the future of the Maritime Incident Response Group is up for grabs as part of the cost-saving programme as indicated in the DfT Transport Spending Review Press Notice dated 20.10.2010 ie The Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG) will be reviewed.

The MIRG was formed to respond to incidents at sea for which firefighting, chemical hazard and/or rescue teams may be required. The teams are drawn from 15 fire and rescue services and since the MIRG teams began operating in 2006 they have not been involved in any significant incidents. All ships' crews are trained in basic firefighting techniques and there is little evidence that MIRG has changed the outcome of ship fires. A consultation will follow on the detailed proposals but it is estimated that ending all the MIRG would save the department £340,000 annually'.

Nautilus General Secretary Mark Dickinson has also said MIRG was also created for good reasons, following long-running concerns over the decline in the number of coastal fire and rescue services (FRS) capable of delivering emergency support at sea. 'The proposed savings represent a drop in the ocean in terms of the overall DfT budget, but the loss of these services could make the difference between life and death or a major environmental disaster,' he added.


So how have we arrived at this current position? 

In September 2002, due to the decline in coastal FRS resources available to support HM Coastguard in 'responding' to fires on ships at sea, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) agreed to fund a research project to redress the issue. The primary aim was to produce a strategy report for the Department for Transport (DfT) in relation to the way UK coastal FRS could, if they were willing to do so, support the MCA.

The 'Sea of Change' project, managed by two senior fire officers seconded into the MCA from their respective services, commenced in January 2003. The incentive of financial support from the MCA/DfT was received by Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA) and FRS as a positive move and subsequently the research project gradually expanded from research into development and implementation.

In October 2005, a major project milestone was achieved by the signing of a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding between the MCA, Ministry of Defence (MoD) and CFOA in relation to the provision of dedicated Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter training for specific FRS teams. Up until this time there were no formal national arrangements in place for this training.

Another significant milestone was finalising the identification of strategically located coastal FRS teams within the British Isles who could integrate into a new national strategy that would support UK maritime resilience. Fifteen fire authorities who were identified agreed to participate in the proposed strategy and in February 2006 a formal agreement between them and the MCA was signed.

In April 2006 the then Secretary of State for Transport, the Rt  Hon Alistair Darling formally launched the implementation of the new MCA/FRS partnership to be known as the Maritime Incident Response Group (MIRG). In his speech he highlighted the MIRG introduction as "a remarkable achievement… immense use in the future…  lives will depend on this service."

The uniqueness of the project and ultimate strategy - the first of its kind in the world - was the result of major cross-governmental co-operation and work involving a number of the principal organisations who provide the UK's civil resilience. The project also received acknowledgement from the United Nations International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and expressions of interest in its outcomes were received from several EU countries.

DfT funding in excess of £3m together with additional funding under the New Dimensions Workstream from the Department for Communities and Local Government, and each of the 15 fire and rescue services involved, enabled the MCA/DfT to enhance its role in line with the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.


UK Maritime Resilience 

MIRG responders are supported with national risk assessments, safe systems of work and standard operational procedures (including those working with the Emergency Towing Vessels or ETVs) to ensure a more safety conscious working environment that far exceeds the adhoc arrangements in place prior to the start of the project in 2003.

As agents for the MCA, the MIRG teams now provide an additional resource to UK maritime resilience which is a vital and has been a much valued element of UKSAR - and still very much a world leader. In addition only very recently we have also seen the announcement by Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) of their new Marine Response Team that can operate alongside the MIRG. Also similar resources based on MIRG are being introduced by the Netherlands whilst Germany and Sweden already have similar initiatives in place.

So how can it all have been developed and introduced knowing that they (UK MIRG) would not provide any 'significant impact' with an incident at sea? How can so many firefighters, senior fire officers and senior MCA and DfT officials have got it so wrong? The answer is of course - they didn't. 


The rest of the article will appear in the February issue of FIRE magazine


Date posted: 12.01.11