Dáil debates

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Adjournment Debate

Search and Rescue Service.

9:00 pm

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North, Sinn Fein)
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On 17 October, a decision was announced, via e-mail, to all staff by the director of the Irish Coast Guard, Mr. Chris Reynolds, to the effect that a two-tier operation will come into being, that the marine rescue co-ordination centre will be co-located with headquarters in Drogheda and that a second centre will be established at a new west coast location. This decision was apparently taken by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, and relayed to the employees of the Irish Coast Guard at Malin Head, Valentia and Dublin.

Until 17 October, an agreement was in place, which was signed off by the then Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, to the effect that the Dublin operation would be closed and that the Valentia and Malin Head coast guard radio stations would be kept open and expanded. Staff were informed that the latter was the position but, after three years, they have been informed that matters have changed. The decision made by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, represents a complete U-turn on an agreement made by the then Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern.

The station on Valentia dates back to 1914 and, as the Ceann Comhairle will testify, it is an intricate part of the life of the island and of Kerry as a whole. The staff there have saved countless lives and its history is a testament to the their dedication and hard work. Valentia is by far the busiest of the three stations in operation and it receives the highest number of distress communications. What will be the status of Valentia in the wake of the announcement by the Minister? Will it be unmanned or will it be closed down?

None of this makes sense. The station was refurbished in the recent past and the staff who were working there at the time went to great lengths to ensure that everything necessary for future development was put in place. In that context, a suspended ceiling that could be removed was erected and underground cables, which are not currently in use, were laid. Every effort was made to protect the future of the station.

If the station is to be unmanned or closed down, and in light of the fact that under decentralisation staff are only obliged to relocate on a voluntary basis, what will be the position regarding the staff currently employed there? Where will these people go? Will they be compelled to move to another station? What will happen to them and their families? I am aware that there will be a new intake of staff in the coming months and that 53 applications have been made in respect of about nine vacancies. I understand that quite a number of the 53 individuals who applied listed Valentia as their preference.

Will the Minister provide an indication as to where the new station will be located? Does he intend to close the stations at Valentia and Malin Head or does he intend them to be unmanned? What is the status of the people currently employed at these locations?

Photo of Máire HoctorMáire Hoctor (Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Minister of State, Department of Health and Children; Tipperary North, Fianna Fail)
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I am taking this matter on behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, who cannot be here.

The Minister wishes to dispel any suggestion of a reduction in the quality of service to those engaged in maritime activities, to which a reference to decommissioning might give rise. On the contrary, recent decisions have been taken against a background of renewed investment and support for maritime safety. The Irish Coast Guard and the maritime administration within the Minister's Department is the national authority with responsibility for the promotion, regulation and enforcement of maritime safety, which includes maritime security and emergency management.

The Minister recognises its strategic role in respect of safety and security. He has already signalled his intention of giving increased focus to this sector and to doing all possible to minimise incidents and to respond effectively when they occur. While the ultimate outcome will be positive, getting there is going to present challenges for all as they work to improve and develop the service.

The search and rescue process relies totally on clear, effective and reliable communications and is, therefore, ultimately dependent on the performance of Irish Coast Guard radio and telecommunications equipment. It is this communication infrastructure which provides co-ordination centres with the capability of receiving distress messages and communicating with and co-ordinating rescue resources. The Irish Coast Guard currently has its main radio switch and control equipment located at three manned sites around the country. These are at Leeson Lane in Dublin, Malin and Valentia. Dublin is the marine rescue co-ordination centre, MRCC, while Valentia and Malin are marine rescue sub-centres, MRSCs, each with delegated authority from the MRCC to co-ordinate responses to marine emergencies in its area of responsibility.

A Deloitte & Touche report on the Irish Coast Guard in 2002 recommended that two centres should be operated on the basis that each would be capable of supporting the entire national network. Much of the equipment at the three centres is old and in urgent need of replacement. The decision to operate the service from two centres will allow the required upgrade and replacement of equipment to proceed. Any delay in this process could leave the Department of Transport vulnerable to serious failure in the system. Since the report was issued, consideration has been given to a number of options as to how best to proceed. These included proposals to close Dublin and retain the other two centres. Consideration was also given to retaining an east coast centre and one of the other centres.

Following the transfer of the maritime transport functions to the Department on 1 January 2006, the Minister's predecessor asked officials to review current and proposed arrangements for the delivery of these services. As part of this review, the needs of each of the rescue co-ordination units were finalised with a view to undertaking the necessary development and re-equipping work. As a result, the Minister has confirmed that the Irish Coast Guard and maritime administration will decentralise to Drogheda. He has confirmed that there will be a two-centre operation geographically separated as previously recommended. The MRCC will, in line with decentralisation decisions, be co-located with headquarters in Drogheda. The MRSC will be in an urban or near-urban location on the west coast. The Irish Coast Guard is to proceed with the tendering process for new integrated communications system equipment for a two-centre operation for delivery and commissioning in 2009.

It is important to stress that there is no suggestion that Malin or Valentia will be closed or disposed of as Irish Coast Guard locations nor will there be a diminution in the quality of the emergency response capability on the west coast. The stationswill be retained as part of the Coast Guard infrastructure and some operations will continue to be delivered from these locations, although the precise nature of their long-term function has yet to be finalised.

It is important to emphasise that detailed proposals on the implementation of the strategic decisions have now to be finalised. The Minister has given direction for the medium to long-term development and improvement of the Coast Guard. The process of migrating from the present situation to the new developments will be planned and implemented in consultation. That process will take account of the safety needs of local communities, the ongoing improvement of the service to the public and the concerns of individual staff members.