At this point in the year I had hoped to have many more people on board for this project. Then corona virus turned up in the UK and quickly put a stop to my grand plans. Thankfully, with lockdown lifting people are happy for me to come and photograph them again.
I often forget that being behind the camera is completely different to being in front of it. Most people are naturally hesitant to have their photo taken, totally understandable. People who wear uniforms are usually quite modest so the challenge of getting them on board this project has been a little harder than my normal photographic work. That being said, once I chat to folks for a bit to give them a feel of what I’m trying to achieve they’re happy to help me out.
Thankfully, personal contacts go really really far in Northern Ireland. Ryan, the first person to take me up on my project referred me on to his mate Dan, the station officer at HM Coastguard Ballycastle. After many messages back and forward and one weather delay we met up at the start of July.
Dan has been part of Her Majesty’s (HM) Coastguard for just over 20 years. When I quizzed him as to why he joined all those years ago, he simply said it was all about family. His Dad was in the Coastguard when he was younger as was his grandfather and other male relatives, some of which were stationed on nearby Rathlin Island as well as in Ballycastle.
Being a full time paramedic for the NHS in Northern Ireland Dans’ level of commitment to the service is slightly different to the others in his station. Usually HM Coastguard volunteers live and work in the local community in which they serve. Many of the Ballycastle station volunteers work within the immediate vicinity of the station. This means if there’s a call out, they down tools, get to the station as quickly as possible and head out on the rescue call. For Dan, as he’s in full time employment away from Ballycastle, he works set hours for the Coastguard outside of his regular job. The two jobs in his case can’t coexist at the same time. He can’t leave his day job during working hours so volunteers set hours around his paramedic job.
On the day we met, I asked to meet him at the station wearing his uniform. On a normal shift he told me he’d usually be at home in normal clothes (on standby) and only change and go to the station when needed. Notification of a rescue comes to each volunteer through an HM Coastguard issued pager via SMS and email through to mobile phones. When the messages come through, each person responds to the message stating their availability via a scale of numbers from 1 to 5; 1 being immediately ready to go and 5 being unavailable for the entire call. The emergency dispatch team, who you normally speak to via 999 then can build up a picture of who’s able to help, enabling them to allocate appropriate resources.
As all the staff are volunteers they only work from the Coastguard building when there’s a call or training session. This was hugely beneficial for our shoot as it was just the two of us in the building. Most of the equipment was located in the garage so we were able to spend much of our time outside. This was helpful considering the current social distancing restrictions of 2 metres.
HM Coastguard Ballycastle has 13 volunteers aged between 20 and 55. Despite being labeled as volunteers, they are paid a small stipend of around £8 an hour whilst on call to ensure expenses are covered. Like most people in the search and rescue industry, you don’t do it for the money but it is understood that you shouldn’t lose out financially.
Anyone can go through the application process to join HM Coastguard, as long as they hold a valid UK drivers license. These are a series of interviews as well as basic training that all candidates must complete. This ensures suitable people are brought on board as well as making sure the service maintains a base skill level. Whilst the volunteers are giving their time and experience to aid those in distress, a certain level of competency is expected from those that wear the uniform. To remain in service all personnel must complete core training every year and make themselves available to be tasked on a call as often as they can.
In Northern Ireland there are eleven Coastguard stations. They can be found along the coast of Northern Ireland at Coleraine, Ballycastle, Larne, Bangor, Rathlin Island, Portmuck, Portaferry, Newcastle, Kilkeel and the inland waterways of Lough Neagh and Lough Erne. Their area of responsibility is effectively between low and high tide, and slightly inland around cliffs and rocky areas. HM Coastguard does not carry out water based rescue. The RNLI or other declared independent lifeboats would be tasked alongside HM Coastguard should they need water based assistance. Helicopter assets for Northern Ireland are based in Prestwick Scotland. Mutual aid is also provided from the Irish Coast Guard helicopter service.
HM Coastguard Ballycastle were called on for assistance over 60 times last year. Dan spoke generally about some of the incidents they’ve responded to recently. Some of the rescues were people tripping and injuring themselves on coastal paths right up to fatal falls from height. The falls from height included suicides and people underestimating water depths when tombstoning. This photo project is still very much in its infancy yet mental health is a common discussion point. How the volunteers deal with death varies from person to person. Comradery goes a long way in helping the team deal with fatalities. The Coastguard has more formal processes in place to help their volunteers deal with death.
I asked Dan how he personally felt about rescuing people who’ve died be it accidentally or through suicide. Due to his career as paramedic with the NHS he said he was well prepared to deal with tragic events. Encountering death in his regular job means that it’s something he’s able to manage better when working on a Coastguard rescue.
Towards the end of the photo shoot we took a drive out towards Fair Head. This is one of the highest and steepest cliff faces in the area resulting in it being the site of many accidents. Dan talked about how the Coastguard can’t just focus on the person in need. As station officer,he needs to look after his personnel, the public, the person or persons in need and various other resources. If a Coastguard volunteer or bystander is injured during a rescue it usually means another team has to be called to help, further expending and depleting already limited resources.
Get in touch with the Ballycastle Coastguard team via their Facebook page.
If you’re interested in what you’ve seen here and would like to take part, head over to the Contact Page to send me an email.