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Burnham Review Lifeboat Copy April 2017

Nowadays, when a few clicks on a mouse, or a quick call from your mobile, will have a zero hours subcontractor of Amazon Prime jumping into a waiting Transit van and speeding the latest slimming book to you regardless of public holidays, we take the idea of 24 hour a day, Seven day a week response for granted. But what does the phrase, “At your service, 24/7” really mean?

Burnham on Crouch RNLI Lifeboat Station has 50 years experience in delivering 24/7 response, each and every day of every year. Most recently, this service has comprised keeping two Lifeboats crewed, maintained, fuelled and berthed, ready for immediate action in all conditions. The boats are not standard leisure vessels, they are specified, built and maintained to higher than commercial standards. The engines, for example, have been modified so they will start after having been inverted in water in the event of a capsize. Consequently, the Atlantic 85 at Burnham cost £214,000.

They are subject to planned maintenance regimes which replace “lifed” parts to ensure optimum performance in adverse conditions. The parts and routines are coordinated centrally. Imagine the logistics challenges of ensuring there are enough spare propellers, in various sizes, to fit all 349 boats in 237 Lifeboat Stations, in remote locations around the UK, to be delivered at short notice, then multiply that resource by the hundreds of other crucial parts needed every day.

It is no good having great kit if you don’t know how to use it. The crews are drilled on specific “set piece” manoeuvres such as righting the Lifeboat after a capsize, taking a vessel under tow and approaching a lea shore in storm conditions. The crews are not only trained in all aspects of their craft; navigation, boat handling, Radio communications and First Aid, they are regularly assessed and signed off as being competent. There are two training sessions each week at Burnham Lifeboat Station and the volunteers take on additional training sessions, such as CPR, on their own initiative. Assessors from Poole come down regularly to ensure the standards are being kept up.

This is in addition to centrally organised courses at “Lifeboat College” in Poole, Dorset, where more extreme simulations such as deep water survival, righting capsized boats and liferafts and extreme boat handling skills for rough weather are taught. Specialist training facilities include a wave and capsize pool, a fire simulator, a ship’s bridge simulator and an engineering workshop. Lifeboats are usually earning their keep when the cautious are safely berthed, so taking a boat out on a sunny day does not equip the crew to deal with the conditions they will meet in service. It costs £1,527 per year to train one RNLI Lifeboat crew member.

To keep the requisite number of volunteers on form and motivated requires a fair bit of planning. The crews are organised in watches, so no-one has to bear the brunt of staying within “rescue dash” distance of the Station for an unreasonable length of time. This also spreads the load in terms of allowing crew to concentrate on training at a time when others are “on watch”. People have families, they take holidays, they have to get the car MOT’d. The watch system accommodates these human frailties, but it means more people are needed to spread the load and more people are needed to manage and supply the watches.

Burnham Lifeboat Station has around 35 crew available in total. In the event of a call from HM Coastguard or the Police, the Lifeboat Operations Manager will make the decision whether or not to launch one or both boats. This is communicated via pager to the Crew. Sometimes several boats from nearby stations such as West Mersea or Southend will also be launched. To reduce the response time, a shore crew readies the boat while the crew assemble and gear up.

Once out on the water, boats such as the Atlantic 85 use GPS Chartplotters with Automatic Identification System, to help guide them to the search area in the shortest possible time, often in reduced visibility. Running aground or hitting an obstacle voids the chances of a successful rescue as well as damaging boat and crew. Keeping electronic apparatus working in a salt water environment is notoriously difficult, so spare equipment and regular maintenance are a must. I refer you to my earlier paragraph on logistics.

This all takes money, obviously, and so to run the Lifeboats and volunteer crews, the organisation requires fundraisers, publicists, administrators and assessors. It has a payroll to manage, ICT hardware and software to source, maintain and train its staff on. To support some 4,600 volunteer crew nationally, there are 3,000 volunteer shore crew and management. It is worth repeating, these are all volunteers. About half of the salaried RNLI Staff are based at Poole and are numbered in hundreds nationally.

Amazon, by way of comparison, employs 222,400 staff and recruited 39,000 in the last recorded quarter alone. OK, it takes a lot of organisation to get the correct plastic figurine of a character from Game of Thrones to a customer on a Sunday, hence talk of drone deliveries and airship warehouses in the sky. But when fewer than10,000 people, the vast majority unpaid, put their efforts into an organisation which has saved 140,000 lives since its formation at the cost of more than 600 of its own lost in service, that is real service, 24/7.


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