Not enough volunteers to man Greymouth Coastguard

Greymouth Coastguard is so badly undermanned it cannot launch a search and rescue in the event of a mishap, alarming the fishing industry.

The Greymouth Star was tipped off about problems going back to before Christmas, when a shortage of trained crew members started taking its toll.

Fishing company Talley's Greymouth said yesterday it was unaware that the issue was so bad Coastguard was unable to respond to an emergency.

"Currently there aren't enough trained Coastguard West Coast volunteers to respond to a SAR incident, however there are three volunteers who are working hard to complete their training, which will ensure the unit's vessel is operational," Coastguard communications manager Julia James said in response to questions from the Star.

"We expect they will have completed all requirements in the next couple of months."

A large number of Coastguard Lake Brunner's volunteers lived and worked in Greymouth and the organisation was in discussions with them about crewing the Greymouth rescue vessel in the event of a search and rescue incident.

"The police SAR (search and rescue) co-ordinator and the fishing companies are aware of Coastguard West Coast's current crewing situation," Ms James said.

Talley's sponsors Coastguard but Talley's Greymouth manager Geoff Drake said yesterday it was the first he had heard that there were problems with crewing.

It meant basically no one was available to rescue a sick crew member, for example, at short notice.

He asked what would happen if bad weather meant a helicopter could not fly.

"Lives will be at risk unfortunately. It's like having an ambulance you can't drive," Mr Drake said.

The NZCC Rescue Helicopter cannot do rescues over open water, as it has only one engine.

The company which owns the Greymouth helicopter confirmed yesterday it would send a helicopter from Christchurch if it was needed in an emergency. West Coast police area commander inspector Mel Aitken said Coastguard hoped to have the capability to deploy by the end of August.

In the meantime, police would not engage with them.

Backup was the Kotuku Surf Lifesavers and Buller Surf Rescue, with the helicopter.

"We do have contingencies in place and it's a short term matter."

Maritime NZ said staff at the Rescue Co-ordination Centre had a national view of search and rescue.

"They often contact other possible responders (vessels, aircraft, police, land SAR teams etc) as it is not unusual for some to be unavailable immediately because of other work or conditions," Maritime NZ said in a statement.

"They will also, if necessary, have other responders go on standby should back-up or a 'plan B' possibly be required."

It did not say what plan B was.

A Coastguard southern region report dated February, seen by the Greymouth Star, cites an incident in which police asked Coastguard to carry out a sea rescue after the rescue helicopter located a boat but could not raise a response. It was suspected the sole occupant urgent medical assistance.

When the crew assembled at the boat shed two masters were present and no operational crew. The master elected to put to sea with no operational certified crew.

The investigation found this was a "lapse in judgment", but a mitigating factor was the lack of trained crew.

"There are several occasions when assembling an operational crew is not possible."

The report said Coastguard now communicated with police when responses were not possible or unlikely such as "the recent Christmas period".

Ms James said that as a charity and volunteer organisation, Coastguard relied entirely on volunteers to crew its rescue vessels and in small communities like Greymouth that was an ongoing challenge.

It appealed for new volunteers to join the unit.

 - by Laura Mills

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