I thank the Cathaoirleach and members of the joint committee for inviting us, thus providing us with an excellent opportunity to engage with it on what we do, the work programme ahead of us and the challenges we face as Ireland’s search and rescue and pollution prevention service.
The director of the Irish Coast Guard, Mr. Chris Reynolds, has taken up an appointment with the EU capacity building mission in Somalia as of last Monday and will be on special leave for a period of approximately 11 months. I am the acting director and will respond in the best way I can to members' questions. To assist me in dealing with them, I am joined by Mr. Niall Ferns, our volunteer services and training manager who is responsible for the volunteer Irish Coast Guard units, as well as by Mr. Caoimhín Ó Ciaruáin and Ms Clare O’Connell from the maritime services division of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport which provides significant corporate support for the Irish Coast Guard. Before taking questions from members, I would like to take a few minutes to set out the international context for our work, some of the history of our development and an overview of our remit and the challenges we face.
As members are aware, we conduct search and rescue operations and respond to marine casualties.
The maritime and aviation world is regulated by two UN bodies, the International Maritime Organisation, IMO, based in London and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, ICAO, based in Montreal. This is done through international conventions and agreements between states. The regulation of the maritime and aviation world in through these two UN bodies. The international framework for maritime search and rescue is based on the 1979 search and rescue convention. The IMO's safety committee divided the world's oceans into 13 search and rescue areas. In each area the countries concerned have delimited search and rescue regions for which they are responsible. The limits of the Irish maritime search and rescue region correspond with those of the flight information region, which is approximately 200 miles off the west coast, 30 miles off the south coast and the dividing line between Ireland and the UK in the Irish Sea. The whole process of international search and rescue is based on close co-operation between the ICAO and the IMO. It also requires close co-operation with the UK’s Maritime and Coastguard Agency, with which we have a close working relationship. That covers the search and rescue element.
The international framework for responding to marine casualties is based on the International Convention on Oil Pollution Preparedness, Response and Co-operation. It provides a legal basis for states to take action for the purposes of preventing, mitigating or eliminating danger from pollution or a threat of pollution following upon a maritime casualty. If a ship breaks down or is damaged in our exclusive economic zone, EEZ, we have the powers to intervene if we are not happy with the action the master is taking. To do that, officers of the Coast Card or warranted officers under the Sea Pollution Act and Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act have powers that allow us to intervene in maritime casualties to protect the coastline.
To put the organisation into context and give a brief history of the Irish Coast Guard, we were set up in 1991 as a result of the Doherty report and we were called the Irish Marine Emergency Service. The IMES was established by a Government decision in 1990 as a division of the Department of the Marine at the time. The name was later changed to the Irish Coast Guard in 2000 and the division was subsequently transferred to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in 2006. Since 1990, the organisation has come a long way from old rocket houses, horse drawn carts and yellow sou'wester foul-weather gear to the current progressive organisation with state-of-the-art equipment. When I joined the Coast Guard 20 years ago, I noted on one of the first inspections of rocket houses around the coast that they were little more than sheds in a dilapidated condition and our staff were wearing yellow sou'wester gear. Since then, we have invested significantly in the coastal volunteer force to develop it into its current configuration.
As it currently stands, the Irish Coast Guard is a discrete division within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. As with any other division within the Department, we report to the management board and the Minister. Our responsibilities and powers are derived from Government decisions and the search and rescue framework. We are also authorised officers under the Sea Pollution Act 1991 and the Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act. In performing our responsibilities, we provide a variety of services. We provide a marine radio distress listening service and a broadcasting service for marine safety information. Essentially, that means we have three rescue co-ordination centres, RCCs, and a radio network around the coast. If ships are in distress, they can call us on marine VHF and HF radio frequencies. We also regularly broadcast marine safety information for weather forecasts, navigations hazards and so on.
We also provide a marine assistance service for ship casualties. We monitor maritime traffic within our traffic separation schemes off Fastnet and Tuskar. We co-ordinate search and rescue in the Irish search and rescue region, along the coasts and cliffs of Ireland and also in support of An Garda Síochána on the major inland lakes and remote areas. We monitor the EEZ and intervene, as necessary, for marine casualties to prevent or minimise damage to the marine environment by oil, hazardous and noxious substances from vessels' cargoes and offshore installations such as gas rigs and exploration facilities on the coast. We provide support, on request, to statutory bodies or agencies, particularly in terms of emergency response. Under the State's major emergency framework, the Coast Guard is nominated as a principal emergency service. We are, therefore, Ireland's fourth "blue light" service alongside An Garda Síochána, the national ambulance service and the fire service.
I will now outline the way the Coast Guard is organised and, essentially, what we are all about. To carry out its functions the Coast Guard organisation is made up of four sections. The first is Coast Guard operations. Search and rescue and ship casualty operations are co-ordinated through the three rescue co-ordination centres, namely, the marine rescue co-ordination centre in Dublin, the marine rescue sub-centre in Valentia on the Iveragh Peninsula and the marine rescue sub-centre on Malin Head. These centres are responsible for search and rescue co-ordination, provision of coastal radio services, ship casualty operations and co-ordination of all Coast Guard volunteer activities. The current staffing complement in the three centres is 46 and the centres maintain a 24-7 watch coverage.
The second section of Coast Guard operations is that of maritime casualties. As well as monitoring the distress channels and responding to search and rescue incidents, the RCCs monitor our EEZ and respond to maritime casualties which pose a threat of pollution to our coastline. The RCCs are supported by the maritime casualty and counter-pollution section in Coast Guard headquarters. This section is responsible for developing, training and maintaining Coast Guard incident response to ship casualty and counter-pollution preparedness and response in line with the oil pollution, response and preparedness convention. It also maintains the national oil spill contingency plan and audits local authority and harbour plans, which are also oil spill contingency plans. It maintains the national pollution stockpile in Blanchardstown and develops training for national response teams and county councils in response to major incident management. Currently, there is one staff member in this area with two more to join shortly. The Coast Guard employs contractors to support operations in this area.
On receiving calls from distress channels - marine VHF, EPIRBs and 999 calls - the RCCs in responding to marine incidents on the coast have a number of resources to call upon. These include search and rescue helicopters. Coast Guard helicopter services are provided under contract by CHC Helicopter, operating a fleet of Sikorsky S-92 helicopters out of four bases in Dublin, Shannon, Waterford and Sligo, respectively. Helicopter services are on 15 minutes' notice by day and 45 minutes' notice by night. In addition to their primary role of provision of maritime search and rescue services, the Coast Guard provides an around-the-clock medical evacuation service – so-called medivacs - to the offshore islands. In 2018, the Coast Guard flew a total of 102 island medivacs, an increase on 2017. In addition, Coast Guard helicopters conducted eight long-range offshore medical evacuations. These are evacuations from fishing or merchant vessels off the coast where, for example, someone falls ill. Coast Guard helicopters have flown in excess of 665 missions in 2018. These missions also include inland searches for missing persons in support of An Garda Síochána and mountain rescue teams.
The helicopter service also provides assistance to the national ambulance service. Coast Guard helicopters provide helicopter emergency medical service to the national ambulance service, including inter-hospital transfers. The busiest inter-hospital transfer route is from Letterkenny hospital to University Hospital Galway. If an ambulance is called out to a person in Donegal or the surrounding area and a STEMI alert is issued or the person needs to be brought to hospital quickly, the nearest hospital for this type of emergency will be Galway. We are called in by the national ambulance service and we transfer the person to Galway.
Another resource we use heavily is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, RNLI. It is categorised as a declared resource to the Coast Guard, which means that each individual station can be directly requested to respond to individual incidents. The RNLI maintains 38 lifeboats on the island of Ireland manned by volunteers. In 2018, the RNLI was requested to launch on more than 836 occasions.
Another Coast Guard response is the search and rescue units, which are volunteer units. The nationwide network of volunteer Coast Guard units is an integral part of the national search and rescue framework. The network has a membership of approximately 1,000 volunteers formed into 44 individual units around the coast. All units are classed as onshore search units, with 23 of the 44 units having an additional function of boat operations and 17 units having a cliff rescue capability.
They can do onshore search. Some of them have boats and some of them have cliff rescue responsibility.
The Coast Guard units are composed of: 12 three-function units - search, boat and cliff; 16 dual function units; and 16 single function units carrying out search only. The units comprise typically between 15 and 25 volunteers. Each Coast Guard unit is composed of a volunteer person in charge, deputy person in charge, training officer, equipment officer, administration officer and education officer. That is how they are organised and each has a particular role and responsibility within the volunteer unit.
Coast Guard units were tasked from the rescue co-ordination centres on 1,180 missions in 2018. It can be seen that they provide a significant response for us. All units are coupled with a capacity to support their communities during local emergencies including inclement weather. These community services were to the forefront during Storm Emma last March when major challenges were experienced in maintaining essential services. Coast Guard volunteers provided emergency support to healthcare staff and also provided support for isolated homes.
Mr. Ferns manages, resources and trains the Coast Guard volunteer units. There are ten dedicated Coast Guard staff in volunteer service and training, which includes six staff on the coast managing the volunteer units directly. The section's resources are given considerable support by the maritime services division of the Department, including Mr. Ó Ciaruáin and Ms O'Connell who are present.
The output of all this work is lives saved. The Coast Guard attaches particular attention to what is categorised as lives saved. This refers to assistance provided that if it was not available would have resulted in loss of life, severe risk of loss of life or protracted hospitalisation. In 2018 the Coast Guard has recorded that in excess of 400 people were categorised as lives saved.
A vital part is the organisation engineering and logistics section. The engineering and logistics section manages the radio communications network in the rescue co-ordination centres and the radio aerial infrastructure around the coast to maintain marine VHF and HF coverage in the search and rescue region. VHF channel 16 and HF frequencies are used for distress listening, and calling and working channels to maintain communications with the ships at sea. The engineering and logistics section also manages the Coast Guard stores in Blanchardstown. There are seven staff employed in this area with another three staff in the pipeline.
I have briefly set out the role and structure of the Coast Guard within the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. The Coast Guard as we know it has existed for 19 years, and has been under the remit of the Department for Transport, Tourism and Sport for 13 years. During that time it has evolved to the organisation it is today, monitoring distress channels and responding to incidents, saving lives and responding to threats of pollution to the coastline. Its success depends largely on the goodwill of volunteers from the RNLI and its own Coast Guard volunteers to give of their time and become professional responders in maritime life-saving situations. In return the Coast Guard provides excellent training and equipment to carry out that task.
While the role has not changed in those years, the challenges we face have evolved over time and continue to do so. The Coast Guard has always sought to place safety at the heart of its activities. We define a successful operation as being when we get a distress call, send out a boat, cliff team or search team with five people and we get those five people back; the bonus is actually carrying out the rescue. Safety is and always has been at the heart of our organisation. However, we are involved in high-risk activities on a daily basis. For that reason, we have invested significantly in training, equipment and systems to ensure that our volunteers and full-time staff are our first concern when we task a search, boat, cliff team or helicopter.
Reliable information and awareness of risk is key. Strong communication channels are vital. Learning the lessons from missions that went well but also those that did not is essential to an organisation that wants to continually improve what it does.
Recent tragic accidents have been difficult for the organisation as a whole. We mourn the loss of close and valued colleagues and friends. We are also compelled to honour their memories by building a stronger, safer and more resilient search and rescue service for Ireland.
I hope this provides a quick overview of who we are and what we are about. I am more than happy to take questions from committee members.