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Sea fire cover adequate claims minister

PUBLISHED: 03:00 25 September 2002 | UPDATED: 12:42 03 March 2010

SUFFOLK'S North Sea coast is "adequately" covered by marine firefighters based in Lincolnshire, a government minister has told The Evening Star.

But today we can reveal that coastguards believe a massive piece was taken out of the coastal jigsaw when Suffolk's marine unit was disbanded last week.

By PAUL GEATER

political editor

paul.geater@eveningstar.co.uk

SUFFOLK'S North Sea coast is "adequately" covered by marine firefighters based in Lincolnshire, a government minister has told The Evening Star.

But today we can reveal that coastguards believe a massive piece was taken out of the coastal jigsaw when Suffolk's marine unit was disbanded last week.

And the disbanding of the Suffolk team will mean a logistical nightmare if firefighters have to be landed on a blazing vessel off the East Anglian coast.

Now the nearest firefighting at sea unit is in Lincolnshire, based at Boston, but that is 70 miles from the search and rescue helicopters at Wattisham which would be needed to fly them out to a stricken vessel.

The long flight means that the flexibility will be lost.

At present if a need for a firefighting at sea team is identified, the fire service involved is contacted by the coastguard and asked if it can get a team together.

This is done while the search and rescue helicopter flies out to the vessel and collects up to 18 people who need to be carried off to safety. When they are returned to land, the helicopter picks up the firefighting teams and takes it to the ship.

However if the helicopter has to fly to Boston and back, which may be a round trip of 150 or more miles, the return trip could take almost two hours.

Another factor is the amount of fuel the helicopter would have to carry if it has to fly to Boston – fuel is heavy and the more the helicopter carries the fewer firefighters and less equipment it can take to a ship in trouble.

However these arguments cut little ice with ministers at the Department for Transport.

We sent 20 questions to Transport Secretary Alistair Darling and shipping minister David Jamieson.

Mr Jamieson's office sent us a five paragraph reply which said the government saw no problems despite Suffolk's decision.

"Following this action, nine of the UK's 40 coastal fire brigades provide an off-shore fighting capability," he said.

"These brigades are also supported by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency through its search and rescue activities. Moreover, crews of all vessels are trained in emergency procedures including onboard firefighting.

"In the event of any incident off the coast of East Anglia where fire brigade assistance is required, cover is available from the Lincolnshire authority.

"We believe this represents adequate cover," Mr Jamieson said.

The coastguard service is guarded in its views about the disbanding of the Suffolk service – its official reaction was: "It was a useful

service, we are sorry to see it go."

However privately coastguards are known to be highly critical of the decision.

"Suffolk was an important piece in the jigsaw of cover and ideally placed between Lincolnshire and Kent," one coastguard said.

"And when you consider the search and rescue helicopters come from Wattisham it was in exactly the right place – things will be more difficult now," he added.

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