Thursday, 5 February 2004

Ceisteanna (3, 4)

Joe Sherlock

Ceist:

2 Mr. Sherlock asked the Minister for Defence the basis on which he decided to end the Air Corps role in search and rescue operations from Sligo; the cost of hiring and maintaining the private helicopter service that will replace it; if his attention has been drawn to the description of the decision as very regressive by the Irish Fish Producers Organisation; the duties the personnel transferred out of Sligo will now perform; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3483/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Dinny McGinley

Ceist:

4 Mr. McGinley asked the Minister for Defence if his attention has been drawn to the widespread concerns in the north west arising from his decision to terminate Air Corps participation in search and rescue services; and if he can guarantee that there will be no diminution in the standard of services to coastal and island communities by the new operating company. [3520/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (9 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Defence)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 and 4 together.

The Irish Coastguard has overall responsibility for the provision of maritime search and rescue services within the Irish search and rescue region. The Air Corps provides the search and rescue service, SAR, off the north-west coast while CHCI, a private operator, provides the service from Dublin, Shannon and Waterford.

In the period from late September 2003, there was an unusually high incidence of sick leave among the Air Corps rear-crew, that is, winchmen and winch operators. As service continuity within the north-west search and rescue operation could not be guaranteed with the existing rear crews the GOC of the Air Corps posted 13 of the 17 personnel to other duties. The four remaining crew were due to return to duty but three opted to transfer out of search and rescue. As a result, the north west search and rescue operation was limited in that it was unable to provide a winching service. While most other aspects of the search and rescue service continued to be provided, the lack of a winching capability severely eroded the level of service on offer and potentially compromised the safety of mariners.

In view of this, I asked my officials to work with the Air Corps to determine when it might be in a position to return to full search and rescue service. This examination took place against a background where CHCI, the provider of all other search and rescue services in the State, had submitted a proposal to the Irish Coastguard indicating that it could provide a service within a relatively short timeframe.

As I have said in the past, the safety of Air Corps personnel is of paramount importance. Training new winch crews and enabling them to acquire the requisite experience, including experience in theatre, would have meant that the Air Corps would have been unable to return to a 24 hour full search and rescue service until March 2005. In addition, because of the small scale of the Air Corps search and rescue operation, it would continually be at risk from the loss of small numbers of experienced personnel. In view of this, I advised my colleague, the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, of the situation and of my decision to withdraw the Air Corps search and rescue service in the north west.

We can never lose sight of the fact that search and rescue is an emergency life saving service, which seafarers must be able to rely on in all circumstances. In the absence of the Air Corps being able to provide the required level of service, and given the level of ongoing risk of the service not being available because of a lack of trained back-up Air Corps personnel, the reliability of the service offered by the Air Corps would always be in question. The Air Corps will continue to provide its current limited service while the coastguard makes alternative arrangements for the return of a full SAR service in the north-west. It is expected that these arrangements will be in place within weeks.

This was not an easy decision. The Air Corps has a long and distinguished tradition in providing search and rescue services and I know this decision was a real disappointment for it. I am also aware of the significant efforts of Air Corps management and staff to maintain an operational SAR service in the north-west, in particular the dedication and commitment of key personnel in the north-west search and rescue operation. However, the provision of this essential emergency service requires that a full team be available 24 hours a day and seven days a week. The Air Corps was not in a position to provide this.

The issue of service standards as regards all search and rescue and other maritime emergency operations is a matter for the Irish Coastguard. I understand that CHCI provides a full SAR service to the standard required and demanded by the Irish Coastguard. As such, I see no reason for coastal and island communities to be concerned about the standard of emergency service available from CHCI when it replaces the Air Corps in the north-west. The question of the cost of the new operation is a matter for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources.

With regard to Air Corps personnel still serving in the north-west, they continue to provide a limited SAR service pending the implementation of the new service. The arrangements for winding down the Air Corps service and the introduction of the new service are the subject of discussions between my Department and the Irish Coastguard. Air Corps personnel currently serving in the north-west, who are redeployed from Sligo to Casement Aerodrome in Baldonnel, will undertake such duties as may be assigned to them by GOC Air Corps. In this regard, it is the objective of the Air Corps to retain and develop the skills of all its personnel in the best interests of the Air Corps and the wider Defence Forces and duties are assigned accordingly.

Does the Minister accept that the withdrawal of the Air Corps search and rescue service from Sligo amounts to an effective privatisation of Air Corps operations? Does he accept that there is widespread concern among members of the Air Corps about its systematic downgrading in regard to search and rescue operations? Will he indicate the role the Air Corps will now play in search and rescue operations?

I do not accept that the circumstances described pertain. I found this decision very difficult and worked hard with management to solve the problem. The circumstances in which it was taken, however, were that the State is obliged to provide a seven day, 24 hour emergency service for seafarers, who must be confident that the service is reliable. Given that I was not in a position to meet that obligation and the Air Corps could not provide such a service for the greater part of a year, I had no choice but to take the action I did, given that an alternative operator was in a position to provide such a service within a couple of weeks.

While I am indebted to the management of the Air Corps and those who fought so hard to solve this problem, one cannot ignore the fact that the winchmen and winch crew took their own decisions and left me partially paralysed, as it were, in terms of maintaining the service. I made the decision with the utmost regret.

Will the Minister indicate the cost of replacing the Air Corps operation with a private firm? Will he confirm that the cost over three years is approximately €16 million, which would be sufficient to buy several helicopters? The organisation representing fishermen in the north west, the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, has described the measure as very regressive. Why, when he addressed the issue of outsourcing the Air Corps on 4 December last in the House, did the Minister not inform Deputies of his plans?

I will address the Deputy's final question first. An extraordinary effort was made by the GOC of the Air Corps and senior management to rescue the service and find a solution. It was only when it was determined that we were unable to provide a full-time service for the greater part of the year that I was forced into the position of taking a hard decision. Often in politics one does not have the option of taking one's preferred decisions and when faced with safety issues, one has minimal scope.

As far as cost is concerned, the F61 has been purchased. The Department allocated considerable expenditure in the base in Sligo and training and other arrangements for the full-time service. These funds will continue to be made available for the north-west. Communities in the region can be assured that they will be afforded the facilities necessary to enable a full-time service to be provided. No additional cost will arise, apart from the expenditure incurred from the purchase of a number of utility helicopters, the maintenance of the pilots' training schemes and the operation of a limited search and rescue scheme on the island, which will not extend to mariners.

Everyone, including the Air Corps, agrees that this decision is a terrible blow to the morale of the Air Corps, particularly the personnel who transferred to Sligo from Dublin and Baldonnel with their spouses and families a few years ago and must now, unexpectedly, up their tents and return to Baldonnel or elsewhere. No one is more aware of the excellent service the Air Corps has provided over the past 40 years than I am, coming as I do from a coastal area of County Donegal.

In addition to providing search and rescue services, the Air Corps was permanently at the beck and call of coastal communities, providing flights of mercy and frequently taking people to the islands for funerals and wakes, responding to hospital call-outs and bringing students to and from the mainland. The service was available 24 hours a day without any cost to those who availed of it and the Air Corps was ready and willing to respond to every call.

This service has now been handed over to a private company. Will the Minister guarantee that when someone on Tory Island, Aranmore, Inishboffin or any other coastal community requests a helicopter to take an expectant mother or a person who has suffered a heart attack to hospital, the new company will be as responsive as the Air Corps has been in the past or will we have to pay for every errand and flight of mercy undertaken by the new Canada-based private enterprise? I want such a guarantee.

There is no question or doubt that the Air Corps has a long and distinguished tradition in search and rescue services. A private company has been providing this service in Shannon, Dublin and the south in recent years. The final rung in the ladder, so to speak, in terms of regions within the responsibility of the Department was the north-west. Over three or four years, I allocated a significant sum of €16 million, as Deputy Sherlock noted, to maintain the service and provide for and improve the base in Sligo and new training schemes. Having done this, I was placed in the unenviable position of not being able to provide a 24 hour service.

No complaints have been received concerning the private company providing this service in Dublin, Shannon and the south. I assure Deputy McGinley that the limited service to be provided on land by the Air Corps will be maintained. We will not, however, provide a service for seafarers. All other services will be maintained and the Department will purchase a raft of new helicopters which will place us in an enhanced position.

If an islander has an emergency and calls on the new service, will there be a charge or will it be under the same conditions as applied when the Air Corps provided the service so well for 30 years?

It is impossible to answer the Deputy's question for the simple reason that the Air Corps is not in a position to provide that service on a 24-hour basis at present. The service which will be provided by the private source will be a matter for it, but from what I have heard throughout the country from Shannon to Dublin, it deals with emergency situations with the same competence and tradition as the Air Corps. It is important to realise that we are not in a position to provide that service on a 24-hour basis.