In an informal poll before Christmas, 90 per cent of coastguards said they wanted their union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, to hold a strike ballot.
David Brann, fundraising and communications director at the RNLI, said the charity is concerned that the strike could affect its fundraising SOS Day on Friday.
“Our volunteers have spent months preparing for this event, but if the public think we are part of the coastguard and part of any strike action, they will not support our fundraising,” said Brann. “That’s why it is so important to us that our position is made clear.”
He said there had been several recent examples of the media confusing the roles of the RNLI and the coastguard, such as with the rescue of crew from the Ice Prince cargo ship, which sank off the coast of Devon earlier this month. The RNLI rescued the Ice Prince crew, but the coastguard was credited with carrying out the operation by sections of the media. The coastguard coordinates search and rescue operations, whereas the charity responds to requests and operates lifeboats.
Spencer Gammond, head of external communications at the RNLI, said the confusion was a significant and long-standing problem. He said: “We do robust annual research that shows only four out of 10 British adults are aware that the RNLI is not part of HM Coastguard and only four out of 10 know how we are funded.”
He said the root of the problem was that the media first received information about sea rescues from HM Coastguard and journalists were often unclear that the people doing the rescuing were charity volunteers. “The BBC recently used a picture of a lifeboat to illustrate a story about the potential coastguards’ strike,” he said.
He said the RNLI would be pointing out such mistakes and working with editors to clear up confusion. The charity also plans to equip its lifeboats with video cameras so that people can see the rescuers in action.
The charity’s fundraising SOS day comes after one of the RNLI’s busiest years. It made more than 8,000 lifeboat launches from its 233 stations around the British Isles and dealt with a sharp increase in responses to inland flooding after last summer’s inclement weather.