Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Questions (54)

Seán Crowe


54. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Defence the precise role the Defence Forces played in supporting civil society groups as they responded to the recent floods which devastated many homes and communities. [2788/16]

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Oral answers (10 contributions) (Question to Defence)

We all witnessed the scenes of utter devastation caused by the recent floods and the stress that families went through at that time. There has been a succession of floods and major incidents of this nature in recent years. I do not think there was any criticism of the Defence Forces themselves, although some people suggested that there were delays in bringing the Defence Forces into the process. Is it the case that there were some delays? I have tabled this question to establish what role the Defence Forces played in supporting civil society and communities.

I thank the Deputy for the question. In accordance with the framework for major emergency management, primary responsibility for responding to severe weather events, such as the recent storms and subsequent flooding, rests with the three designated principal response agencies: the relevant local authority, the Garda Síochána and the HSE. In accordance with agreed arrangements, all the available resources of the Defence Forces are made available on request to support the principal response agencies. At national level, the Department of Defence and the Defence Forces are represented on the Government task force on emergency planning. This ensures the fullest co-ordination and co-operation in the event of an emergency. The major emergency plans that have been deployed by local and regional authorities identify the procedures for requesting assistance from the Defence Forces. The role of the Defence Forces in these circumstances depends on the nature of the incident and the type of assistance requested. In November 2015, each local authority was reminded of the range of capabilities the Defence Forces can bring to emergency responses. They were also advised of the local call-out arrangements. The call-out procedure provides for contact with the Defence Forces 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. During the recent period of severe weather from 4 December 2015, the Defence Forces responded positively to all requests for support received from all three principal response agencies. Most requests were received from local authorities, in line with their central role in the flood response. The extent of the support provided was considerable. The Defence Forces were deployed to multiple locations in counties Donegal, Sligo, Mayo, Galway, Kerry, Clare, Kilkenny, Wexford, Offaly, Tipperary, Westmeath, Limerick, Roscommon and Cork.

I will come back to the Minister.

I will come back with the actual number of members of the Defence Forces who were out.

It was significant. Well over 3,000 members of the Defence Forces were deployed.

It is important to reiterate our gratitude for the work of the members of the Defence Forces who came out in extremely bad conditions. Everyone has spoken about the fantastic role they played. Some families experienced delays in the use of Defence Forces resources. I do not know if the Minister experienced that.

I remember watching the Minister on television one night where a family said they had been manning the pumps for a number of days and were at their wits end. The Minister responded by saying that no one should be in that situation and that supports existed. Does the Minister, Deputy Coveney, find that, in his position as Minister, there has been a delay over the years during different emergencies? I am not only talking about the last one. What can we learn from that? Is some sort of analysis done after these floods? We know there is a flood expected as a result of Storm Jonas, which is coming down the track. I am trying to tease out with the Minister what we have done and what we can do better in the future.

That is a very reasonable question. By 22 January 2016, which was last Friday, a total of 3,122 members of the Defence Forces had been deployed. In addition, 517 Defence Force vehicles, including ten helicopters, have been provided to support these works. This was a major response by any standards. If we are learning lessons - there are always lessons to be learned from the kind of experiences we have had over the past two or three months - I would like to see local authorities calling for assistance from the Defence Forces earlier. There were thousands of local authority workers out manning pumps and helping people to get water out of their premises. One of the lessons learned is that we have significant capacity in the Defence Forces that is available to be deployed quickly and early. It should not be seen as an admission of defeat by a local authority to work with significant Defence Force capacity earlier in a crisis. The local authorities, on the whole, did a really good job given the extent of the flooding. One of the lessons, from my perspective, is that local authorities should feel free to seek assistance from the significant capabilities of the Defence Forces earlier in a flood situation. That would have been helpful but it still would not have solved all the problems.

I do not want to make political capital out of the hardship of so many families whose lives were destroyed, in many cases by losing what they had worked all their lives for, but I am concerned about the delay. I had some experience of this in my local authority a number of years ago where there seemed to be reluctance on the part of the county manager to address delays. There is an emergency management framework and the Department of Defence is not part of that framework. Would that be a way forward? Civil powers such as the Garda Síochána, the local authority and the HSE are included, yet the Minister's Department is not at the table. The Minister has those extra resources that could be used and perhaps that is something to consider. We are running out of time before the next election but the Minister might address the issue with his Cabinet colleagues. Perhaps we should discuss it in the House when we come back - look at this whole area, learn from what we have done wrong in the past and try to start doing things differently in the future.

We did things differently this time. Most balanced observers would say the level of co-ordination across Government, both locally and nationally, in the context of this flooding was better than we have ever seen before. I would say it was significantly better than we have ever seen before. The task force on emergency planning in Government is chaired by me as Minister of Defence. The Department of Defence is very much involved in the planning and discussion. The co-ordination of an emergency response when it is needed is the responsibility of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, but very much in partnership with other Departments. County managers - chief executive officers as they are now called - should feel free to ask earlier for assistance on the ground from the Defence Forces rather than putting their staff under huge pressure trying to respond to difficult conditions like we have seen from various storms. I would not like to give the impression that I do not think the response was good; the response was much better than we have seen before but we can always learn lessons and try to do better the next time.

In that context I think we should have a debate on this when a new Government is in place to see how we can improve.