More than 700 coastguards have been balloted over strike action in a dispute over pay.
The move could mean the coastguards go on strike for the first time in their 154-year history, according to the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union.
Up to 90% of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) members voting said last year they would take strike action in a consultative ballot if the government and the MCA cannot come to a fair negotiation on pay.
Earlier in 2007, the PCS condemned pay levels in the MCA, where coastguard watch assistants earn only the national minimum wage – despite taking on administrative and operational duties in responding to 999 calls.
Staff have also been expected to accept a pay cut in real terms with pay rises averaging just 2.5% for many, and the most experienced staff receiving pay increases of less than 1%.
Mark Serwotka, PCS general secretary, said: “It is an absolute disgrace that you have coastguard watch assistants receiving a pay rise in October last year merely to comply with the increase in the national minimum wage.
“The government and the MCA can avoid the inevitable disruption that strike action will bring by acting now and recognising that coastguards deserve fair pay at comparable levels to other emergency services.”
The strike ballot closes on 27 February.