Coastguard Watch Assistant/Officer

The Job and What's Involved

Coastguard watch assistants (CWAs) and coastguard watch officers (CWOs) work for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), operating a 24-hour emergency service to keep a permanent watch over UK coasts and waters, and a large part of the North Atlantic Ocean.

They respond to emergencies and requests for assistance by co-ordinating the actions of their own response and volunteer coastguard rescue officers, specialist rescue helicopters, lifeboats, air-sea rescue, emergency towing vessels and the emergency services, as well as other vessels that may be nearby.

The responsibilities of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) include:

Marine safety - enforcing existing regulations to ensure the safety of ships by monitoring the movement of shipping in the area.

Marine emergencies - maintaining a constant watch and providing assistance in emergencies, such as ships and boats in distress, crew members becoming ill, or people getting into difficulty in the sea, on a cliff or in beach areas.

Marine pollution - checking that ships in the area obey environmental regulations.

Coastguard watch assistants (CWAs) have a range of administrative duties, including:

  • Operating monitoring equipment, including satellite systems and radio channels, to watch/listen for any potential problems.
  • Responding to 999 and 'mayday' distress calls, collecting more information and alerting the duty watch manager to co-ordinate appropriate rescue services.
  • Answering queries from ships, mariners and rescue services, as well as interpreting information and updating logs about tides, weather and sea conditions.
  • Checking for, reporting and reacting to illegal activities, such as smuggling, pollution incidents or problems with coastal erosion.

Coastguard watch officers (CWOs) are likely to have the additional responsibilities of:

  • Co-ordinating, in conjunction with the watch manager, the response to any incidents.
  • Advising on matters of maritime safety.
  • Supporting and monitoring the use of other, third party resources.

Volunteer coastguards, or coastguard rescue officers (CROs), are also trained and equipped by the MCA to proceed to any coastal search and rescue incident that may be reported.

Coastguards use a range of communications equipment, including computers, radio and satellite tracking devices.

Coastguards normally work about 42 hours a week in shifts or watches. This includes nights and weekends. It is possible to work part time within this shift pattern.

They usually work in modern, well-equipped operations rooms and offices. Uniforms are provided.

Starting salaries for Coastguard watch assistants may be around £15,000 a year. Additional allowances are paid to coastguards who live and work in the Scottish islands, to those required to live in some other very remote areas, and to all coastguards for the purchase of appropriate, uniform footwear.

Getting Started with this Career Choice

CWAs and CWOs are employed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). There are just over 1,200 regular staff employed by the MCA in the UK, of whom approximately two-thirds are coastguards.

They are based in any one of 19 maritime rescue co-ordination centres located around the UK coastline, or at the MCA's headquarters in Southampton. Centres are located, for example, in Stornoway and Shetland in the north, in Brixham and Falmouth in the south, in Belfast and Milford Haven in the west, and in the Thames and Humber centres in the east. There are usually more applicants than vacancies for all salaried posts.

There are about 3,500 people working as volunteers in one of the 400 local coastguard rescue teams around the UK coastline. Anyone of 16 years or over can volunteer if they have a concern for safety at sea. Volunteers are called upon when required and are paid an hourly rate for any work they do for the MCA. This can provide valuable experience for those seeking to become regular coastguards.

CWAs and volunteer CROs are recruited locally. Interested applicants should contact the manager at their nearest coastguard station for information about current and future opportunities. CWOs are recruited nationally, and advertisements appear in national and local newspapers, and on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) website.

Education and Training

Entrants often start as CWAs and in time choose to apply for promotion to become a CWO. No minimum educational qualifications are set for entry, although applicants should have good skills in English and maths.

Appointments may be subject to medical and security checks.

A Few More Exams You Might Need

The initial training programme for Coastguard watch assistants and direct entry coastguard watch officers (CWOs) is mainly on the job, supported by a workbook and periods spent at the MCA's training centre at Highcliffe, Dorset.

The training covers all the competencies needed to do the job, including search planning, coast rescue, chart and map work, and communications. CWA training lasts ten months. CWO training lasts between nine and twelve months, depending on whether the officer has already worked as a CWA. Coastguards take an exam upon completion of training to show they are competent.

A new coastguard always works under supervision, even when fully qualified.

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Skills and Personal Qualities Needed

Coastguards need:

  • To be able to work under pressure, especially during emergency situations.
  • Normal sight and hearing.
  • A clear speaking voice.
  • To be comfortable working alone as well as in a team.
  • Good judgement.
  • To be reliable, with a strong sense of responsibility.
  • An awareness of safety issues at sea and in coastal areas.
  • Good organisational skills.
  • To be able to analyse a situation, stay calm and take quick and effective action.
  • Supervisory skills, and to be able to co-ordinate the actions of others.
  • To be able to cope with the physical demands of the job.

Your Long Term Prospects

Typical opportunities for promotion are from CWA to CWO, and then to watch manager or sector manager.

Taking further training courses run by the MCA may help candidates progress to senior positions or management.

There may also be opportunities, depending on qualifications and experience, to work in marine surveying within the MCA.

Get Further Information

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA),
Spring Place, 105 Commercial Road, Southampton SO15 1EG
Tel: 023 8032 9461
Website: www.mcga.gov.uk

Maritime Skills Alliance, 1 Hillside, Beckingham, Lincoln LN5 0RQ
Website: www.maritimeskills.org

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