Adjournment Matters. - Marine Rescue Service.

Wednesday, 20 February 2002

Seanad Eireann Debate
Vol. 169 No. 6

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Labhrás Ó Murchú: Information on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Zoom on Labhrás Ó Murchú  Fáiltím roimh an Aire Stáit agus gabhaim buíochas leis chomh maith toisc go bhfuil sé ar fáil chun glacadh leis an rún seo.

I am pleased the Minister of State is available this evening. We are all aware of the importance of the helicopter rescue service. Looking back over the years we were always very pleased to be in a position to respond adequately and professionally to emergencies. Ireland is a small island state and, as a result, the need for such a service, particularly in relation to the sea, is evident. Over the years we have all been in awe of the courage and bravery of the crews involved. As a small State, we made definite efforts to ensure that we could call on such a service in emergencies.

The south east has particular needs because of the coastal aspect of the region. Obviously, the area requires special attention. I have no doubt the Minister of State, who comes from the region, is aware of what I am saying in that regard. The main thrust of my matter relates to what is an adequate and professional service. I am interested in a number of responses from the Minister of State in this regard. We are discussing a helicopter or helicopters and considering if the matter is now finalised or if it will involve organic development. If it is found as time goes on that extra helicopters are necessary, will that be taken [448] into account rather than waiting for a situation to develop where other needs arise and there are questions about whether finance will be available?

I am aware we are talking about very large finance, not buying a Volvo or a Mercedes. We are also talking about the upkeep and ongoing maintenance of the helicopter. Needless to say, this is a vital part of the service. Given the emergency nature of the service, we need to know the helicopter or helicopters are in working order at all times when required. Therefore, a back up service is vital. There is also the question of professionally trained crews. We must focus on this aspect at all times so that the necessary personnel are available immediately and there are opportunities for training personnel in the future. We must ensure continuity in that regard.

I am not clear about the logistics of the service. I would be interested to know where the helicopter will be stationed in terms of central requirements. I am sure that matter has been considered, but I am interested in the issue. There is also the question of the use of the helicopter. We sometimes think only in terms of sea rescue but many other emergencies arise. If a patient has to be moved in an emergency to a specialised hospital, will that be part of the service? While it might sound a little mercenary, does one have to pay for such a service? Would it be necessary for a business to pay retrospectively?

The other issue on which I would like to touch relates to the evolution which is now taking place on the whole island, North and South. There are many areas of co-operation such as the setting up of Tourism Ireland, which is a great example. There is co-operation also in the areas of agriculture, rail transport, canals and so on. North-South co-operation, which in the past may have been a sensitive issue, is very important. I was pleased recently to hear Dr. Paisley compliment the Government on the help it provided in relation to a terrible tragedy which occurred in the northern part of the country. That co-operation has existed since World War II. We all recall when the North of Ireland was bombed and Mr. de Valera sent ambulances. This created a certain understanding.

There should be flexibility and co-operation in regard to humanitarian issues. Perhaps the Minister of State will touch on that matter. People do not raise questions in regard to humanitarian assistance and who is doing what. We all seem to feel we need assistance and help in times of emergency.

I am anxious to hear the Minister's response but I know that, in putting down the motion and addressing it tonight, I am also putting forward some of the queries and views from the south-east region. I compliment the Minister of State on his proactive approach in this area. There is quite a shocking list abroad at the moment in terms of resources. Each Minister and Minister of State would have to make his own play in that [449] regard. I am well aware that the Minister of State has been very proactive in that regard.

Minister of State at the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. Byrne): Information on Hugh Byrne  Zoom on Hugh Byrne  Ba mhaith liom a rá go bhfuil áthas mór ormsa teacht anseo inniu chun caint ar an ábhar tábhachtach seo. Ba mhaith liom freisin mo bhuíochas a ghabháil le Seanadóir Ó Murchú as ucht an t-ábhar seo a chur ar an gclár.

I am absolutely delighted to inform my colleagues in the Seanad that, on Wednesday, 13 February, I announced the award of a five year contract with Canadian Helicopters Corporation (Ireland) Limited – CHC – to provide an all-weather, 24 hour marine emergency response helicopter service at Waterford airport. It is Waterford airport at present at least. We still have some details to iron out with the authorities at the airport before we finally make that decision.

This new service will start on 1 July 2002. In addition, CHC will provide an interim service on a 12 hours per day basis from 1 May to the start of the main contract. The helicopter service in the south east is currently provided by an Alouette 111 single-engined helicopter at Waterford airport. As the Senator will be aware, the Alouette is in replacement, on a temporary basis, of the Dauphin, which crashed on Tramore beach in July 1999 with the tragic loss of four crewmen. That tragic incident occurred as the crew were returning from a successful mission, and we must not forget their bravery and devotion to duty. I had the good fortune to know one of these people.

We owe all the people who go on mercy missions a tremendous debt of gratitude. They have done enormous work, risking their own lives. The four young men who died paid the ultimate sacrifice. It is nice to know that there are people like that. The role of the emergency services is to be prepared at all times, and we are privileged to have available in the emergency services personnel of such a high calibre.

I will explain the background to the award of this new helicopter service. Following from the joint Department of the Marine and Natural Resources-Irish Coastguard and the Department of Defence working group report on dedicated marine emergency response helicopters, a tender competition was commenced for the provision of an all-weather marine emergency helicopter at Waterford to replace the Alouette. The competition required that the service be in place for 1 July 2002. When seeking tenders, I made it clear that any new service would have the highest quality features to ensure that a first class service would be provided in the south east, an area which has high-intensity shipping, fishing and leisure activity, which grows by the day, and a corresponding high-casualty potential. It is no surprise that the Hook lighthouse was the first built in Europe. That indicates that, even 800 years ago, [450] it was considered that the waters in that area were the most dangerous in Europe.

The tender process has now been completed and I am pleased to record that a contract has been awarded for one of the most highly specified marine emergency helicopters in the world to provide the rescue service. The Senator mentioned that he did not think a Mercedes was necessary. I am pleased we have the equivalent of a Mercedes.

The helicopter features specialised direction-finding equipment and forward-looking infrared equipment, which can detect people in the water through heat transmission. This facility makes it a truly all-weather, day and night rescue facility. This helicopter can carry up to 15 survivors, 25 people in all. It can transport a fully equipped fire fighting crew and has up to five hours' endurance in the sky. The craft has a maximum range of 450 nautical miles. This is far in excess of anything we have had in the past or anything that moves about in our airspace or the airspace of western Europe. The craft has a cruising speed of 110 knots.

In addition to this service, which will start on 1 July next, negotiations are advanced for the provision of coastguard cover with an all-weather marine emergency helicopter at Waterford from May to July 2002. The helicopter will be on call for 12 hours per day until the start of the main contract. This will provide improved capability, endurance and range over the Alouette during the long hours of daylight at that time of the year. The existing coastguard all-weather, 24 hour helicopters based at Dublin and Shannon will be called on to cover any gaps during the nights in that period.

I pay personal tribute to all the other personnel who make up the nationwide emergency response team, in addition to our helicopter crews. I am sure all Members of the House recognise the vital role they play in ensuring the safety of our coastal and seafaring communities in particular. More than anything else, marine emergency response demonstrates the benefits of helicopters. The new helicopter will be available for all mercy missions and I am glad the Senator raised the issue. However, it is important to acknowledge that the helicopter is only part of a marine emergency response team.

It is easy to understand how a helicopter may attract the glare of publicity, but successful rescue services often depend on the combined efforts of search craft, lifeboats and land rescue teams. There are many distress circumstances in which other forms of response are suitable.

Our marine emergency response benefits greatly from the almost saturated coverage around the coast by a fleet of purpose-built lifeboats provided and operated by the Royal National Lifeboat Institution – RNLI – whose craft range from inflatable inshore boats to all-weather offshore boats. I think very highly of the people in the RNLI. Every year in every port in Ireland and indeed beyond, it is said how good they are. People put their hands in their pockets [451] for them and have tremendous confidence in them. I thank them.

In addition, there are community inshore rescue boats at nine stations: Drogheda, Cahore, Wexford, Tramore, Bunmahon, Bantry, Banna, Ballybunion and Kilkee. The coastguard also has inshore rescue boats around the country.

All these groups, combined with the invaluable assistance of the Garda, fire brigade, ambulance and medical services and many volunteers, serve to make up an invaluable national emergency capability, for which the nation owes a debt of gratitude.

[452]Senator Ó Murchú mentioned Dr. Paisley, who complimented and thanked us for the assistance we give. On many occasions we have had to call on the RAF, which, no matter what the circumstances or how sensitive the problem, was always available. It is nice to think we now have equipment in place that will allow us to assist people in British waters and on the whole western European seaboard who may be in difficulties. I am delighted to announce that tonight and I thank the Senator for raising the issue.

The Seanad adjourned at 9.50 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 21 February 2002.

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