Dáil debates

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Priority Questions

Defence Forces Deployment.

1:00 pm

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Question 71: To ask the Minister for Defence the initiation procedures under which members of the Defence Forces were deployed to deal with the weather crisis in December 2009 and January 2010; if he intends to change the methods by which deployment will be initiated; if he will be more proactive in the use of the Defence Forces in any subsequent use in the maintenance of essential services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2296/10]

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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Emergency planning is developed on the "lead Department" principle. This means that each Department is responsible for planning for emergencies that fall within its area of responsibility. The framework for major emergency management sets out the structure enabling the principal response agencies, namely, the Garda Síochána, the Health Service Executive and local authorities, to prepare for, and make a co-ordinated response to, major emergencies resulting from events such as severe weather.

In accordance with the framework, the Defence Forces act as a support to locally based services. All requests for the assistance of the Defence Forces are processed through the local authorities, the HSE and the Garda Síochána. This ensures that there is an efficient, effective and co-ordinated response in accordance with prioritised local requirements.

Standing arrangements are in place for the civil authorities to request the assistance of the Defence Forces. Requests for aid to the civil power are normally made by a member of the Garda Síochána not below the rank of inspector. Requests for assistance to local authorities are normally processed through local authority managers. Requests for assistance from the HSE are normally received from chief emergency management officers.

All assets, resources and capabilities of the Defence Forces throughout the country were made available to assist the civil authorities where and when called upon. Defence liaison officers were appointed to all local emergency relief centres to co-ordinate Defence Forces assistance. The Defence Forces provided assistance to a range of local authorities and to the HSE, utilising their 4x4 vehicles and trucks, while the Air Corps was also active in providing an air ambulance service and support for other emergency services. The type of assistance provided by the Defence Forces includes gritting operations on roads and key junctions in many counties; the transportation of health care personnel to and from hospital, clinics and to patients in outlying areas; the transportation of patients to hospitals and clinics; the distribution of food and supplies in a number of areas; the delivery of water supplies in a number of local authority areas; the provision of transport for the Garda Síochána in Cork; and the provision of a number of air ambulance missions across the country. An Air Corps helicopter was utilised to transport RTE engineers to repair a transmitter at Kippure Mountain in County Wicklow. The Air Corps provided assistance to farmers with cattle on islands in Lough Ree to move fodder to their stock, at request of the Garda Síochána.

The Defence Forces responded to all official requests for assistance received from the civil authorities during the severe weather period.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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I called for the involvement of the Defence Forces before the Minister was even aware that they should be out there. I compliment them on what they achieved when they were used. However, we were well into the big freeze before they were used, and people suffered as a result. When he was asked on RTE about the involvement of the Defence Forces following my call for this to take place, the Minister's response was totally inadequate. He said that we were not out there because we were not asked. That surely was not an adequate response when we were in the middle of a major emergency crisis in this country.

One of the principal roles of the Defence Forces is to aid the civil power and to ensure that essential services are maintained at all times.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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When they are asked.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Yes. We had a flooding crisis before Christmas and a big freeze before and after Christmas. The Defence Forces should have been ready without even being asked to go out there. As the person in charge of the Office of Emergency Planning, the Minister for Defence sat on his hands while this whole crisis dragged on. His response was reactive in the end, rather than proactive.

There is a commitment on the website of the Office of Emergency Planning that a framework would be drawn up for weather emergencies to ensure that all existing local severe weather plans are appropriately co-ordinated and linked. I asked the Minister on a radio programme one evening if this was in place. He did not know the answer that evening, and I can accept that. Can he confirm today that this framework is now place? If we have a recurrence of severe weather conditions in 2010, can the Minister confirm that there will be a different response than that which we recently experienced?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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In 2008, I brought a document to the Government which outlined what happens in the event of various emergencies, including a weather situation like that which we have just experienced. That document identified the lead Department in all cases. For example, if there was an oil spillage off the coast, the Department of the Marine would lead. If there was a terrorist attack, the Garda Síochána would lead. In weather crises such as that which we recently experienced, the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government is the lead Department. That Department summons the emergency response committee during the crisis appropriate to its area of responsibility. That is the position.

The framework for the local situation is in place. I am told that there is a framework plan for each-----

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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What about a national plan that co-ordinated all the local plans? Is that national framework there?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The national framework is there. There is a framework for a local response. At any time, the local committee can get together and request the assistance of the Army or anybody else. Many such committees did not do so for reasons I do not know. It is ludicrous to talk about the Army being ready because they were involved in the flood crisis. The Army is an aid or back up when somebody asks it for help. If groups ask the Army for help, they must ask for help in a specific way and at a specific place. They might request the Air Corps to airlift fodder to cattle at a farm in Listowel because the owner is stuck. They might request that somebody be taken to hospital in County Waterford due to an emergency. In these cases, the Defence Forces get a specific task. It is ludicrous to think of the Army wandering around the country without being requested to do anything, like latter day Don Quixotes, seeking out damsels in distress, riding MOWAGs instead of horses, and deciding to vanquish dragons whenever they happen to meet them.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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The Minister is trivialising the whole thing now. That is not what is being asked.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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This is ludicrous. The Army has to be asked. It acts in response to a request. During the crisis, the HSE was not slow in asking the Army for help. It asked the Army for help from the first day of the frost to carry out air ambulance missions over and above what it had ordinarily been doing. The HSE approached the Army to transport palliative care nurses in south Galway. The HSE approached the Army with a request to do various things in the midlands, and the Army obliged. However, the local authorities, which neither my party nor the Deputy's party controls, were very slow in asking for any assistance. They did not appear to appreciate that the crisis was a local crisis to be dealt with at local level.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Let us blame the local authorities.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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As this weather spell went on longer than anybody would have anticipated, contrary to the forecasts, the local crisis involved more than just accessibility of roads and other issues came into play which made it appropriate for the national emergency response committee to convene a meeting. The committee met when it became appropriate to do so, and the Army was involved very heavily at that stage.

The Army was available at all times. It is ridiculous to talk about mobilising the Army and putting it on stand-by. We are not talking about a part-time Army. We have a full-time standing Army in this country that is mobilised and ready at all times. It can be requested on foot of a local plan or national plan at any time at all. The local authorities did not request the Army during the early stages of the crisis. Apart from the fact that some of them were asleep, I suspect that the local authorities did not request the Army in many cases due to a lack of material, rather than a lack of personnel to put down the material. The authorities had enough personnel to grit the roads and did not need any extra help.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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There was no national framework co-ordinating local plans. The Minister claims that we were not ready for this. The Met Office can accurately forecast eight days ahead, and it even forecasted ten days beforehand that there would be a crisis. Nonetheless, the Cabinet did not meet until 7 January. There was a crisis for ten or 12 days before that. We were snowed in on Christmas Day in Kerry, as were people in other parts of Ireland. It was well signalled, yet the Minister and his colleagues sat on their hands.

The Minister spoke about local authorities not acting. They did not act because they were not directed.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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They had been directed.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Will the Minister confirm that a national framework for a response to severe weather emergencies is being developed to ensure that all existing local severe weather plans are appropriately co-ordinated and linked? That is where the Minister's role comes in. Can he provide me with that national framework?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The Deputy can get it now. It is on the website.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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I did not see it on the website. I will look for it on the website, but if I do not find it, I will be back to the Minister for it.

3:00 pm

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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We need to move on to the next question.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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I would like to respond to that briefly. Every county and city manager in this country has been informed about the framework for emergency planning. Every county and city manager knows a mechanism is in place for establishing a local plan. They also know that one must respond to circumstances such as those described without being directed, as the Deputy suggests, without anyone declaring a national emergency and without an emergency committee meeting taking place in Dublin. The bottom line is that local authorities have responsibility for the accessibility of local roads.

As regards any plan or documentation in the Department, I will make everything available to Deputy Deenihan. There is nothing secret about this matter. It is not like the third secret of Fatima.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Why was there no one in the co-ordinating office for three weeks over the Christmas period?

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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The primary requirement was to have a local response. As the situation evolved, however, a national response became appropriate.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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Surely people should be feeding in to the process from all directions.

Photo of Willie O'DeaWillie O'Dea (Minister, Department of Defence; Limerick East, Fianna Fail)
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If roads in Limerick, Kerry or Waterford freeze up, it is not necessary in the first couple of days to have someone sitting in the national co-ordination office. It is a matter for the local authority in the first instance.

Photo of Jimmy DeenihanJimmy Deenihan (Kerry North, Fine Gael)
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After the major freeze, we have a major fudge.

Photo of Séamus KirkSéamus Kirk (Ceann Comhairle; Louth, Ceann Comhairle)
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The issue has been given a good airing. We will move on.