Seanad debates

Friday, 4 December 2009

Civil Defence Forces Equipment.


2:00 pm

Photo of Nicky McFaddenNicky McFadden (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State for remaining to take this debate. He is certainly earning his keep. I hope he will be here for longer than 40 years at the rate that he is working.

The Minister of State saw the fantastic work of the Civil Defence when he was in Athlone. Several of its personnel told me it is under-resourced and how difficult it is for them to deal with emergencies such as that in the midlands. When the Civil Defence was set up in the 1950s its remit was voluntary air raid protection. It has evolved since then. Its remit was to look after the country in respect of hazards or the fall-out from nuclear disasters.

I cannot see it ever being able to cope with such a disaster but in the interim it can play an active role in more minor incidents such as flooding. Some of the equipment of the Westmeath branch is outdated, the ambulance has a 1994 registration, the minibus was bought in 1996, the pick-up in 1997 and it bought a Volvo truck in 1998, probably its best piece of equipment. Its transit ambulance is also very old.

Five years ago it requested a high-powered passenger jeep. Since it became a statutory body under the Civil Defence Act 2002 when the board was formed it has suffered by not being as well-resourced as it had been. It moved to Roscrea during Mr. Smith's term as Minister for Defence.

It does play an important role. I have never seen anything like its level of commitment. All the members, except the local coordinator, are volunteers. We should make sure it is properly resourced and has proper equipment for the safety of its members and that of the people they rescue. It has a new range of boats which is important and has served a great purpose. Its jeeps, however, need updating. While we realise the value of the Civil Defence let us not just pay lip service but take action to provide funding to resource it properly.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Tipperary South, Fianna Fail)
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I share Senator McFadden's admiration for the Civil Defence. I happen to know its chairman who lives only five miles from me, across the county boundary in Limerick. It is one of the State services I came across when I was a very small boy because a woman who worked for my grandmother put on her uniform once a week and went off to work for the Civil Defence. At least I think in those days the members of the Civil Defence wore uniforms. The Minister for Defence has asked me to convey his regrets to the Senator for not being able to take this Adjournment debate in person. The Minister is grateful to the Senator for giving him this opportunity to clarify the position regarding funding and resources for Civil Defence.

Civil Defence was established in 1950 to be part of the national defence structure, as the necessary civil response to potential hazards which might arise in a war situation. The organisation was designed to undertake non-combatant activities and measures to afford defence against or mitigate the effects on persons and property of an attack on the State.

The importance of Civil Defence is witnessed by its inclusion in Protocol 1 to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. Just as the symbol of the Red Cross is protected by statute, so too is the symbol of Civil Defence as set out in section 9 of the Geneva Conventions (Amendment) Act 1998. Civil Defence was a matter directly under the control of the Minister for Defence until 2002 when the Civil Defence Board was established by statute. While Civil Defence policy remains the responsibility of the Minister for Defence, the day-to-day management and development of Civil Defence on a national basis is the responsibility of the Civil Defence Board.

In 2007, the Minister for Defence approved the strategic plan of the Civil Defence Board, prepared under the terms of the 2002 Act, which covers the activities of the board up to 2010. This plan outlines the Civil Defence strategic objectives in the following areas: participation in the major emergency development programme, development of the Civil Defence response to communities in crisis as part of the local authority emergency plan, provision of appropriate training to Civil Defence members both at local level and at the board's training college in Roscrea, provision of funding to local authorities for Civil Defence operations at a local level, promotion of the image of Civil Defence as a voluntary organisation whose members are highly trained to assist local communities and to support the front-line emergency services and procurement of vehicles, equipment and personal protective equipment to support Civil Defence members in their activities.

The grant in aid paid to the Civil Defence Board from the Defence Vote in the last three years alone amounts to almost €18.5 million. The monies received each year covers grants to local authorities, the procurement of equipment and the cost associated with exercises, stores, training, competitions and administration.

The Civil Defence Board has a statutory duty to oversee training of volunteers while the operational control is governed by the local authority to which civil defence officers are attached. The Civil Defence Board facilitates the development of the organisation at local level by means of an annual grant to each local authority on a 70:30 basis for their Civil Defence operations. The balance of 30% is funded by local authorities themselves. Civil Defence is the major statutory voluntary-based organisation within the State and provides support to all emergency services, such as the Garda, the HSE, the Irish Fire Services and the Coastguard. Within its budgetary allocation, the Civil Defence Board delivers a professional and excellent response as an important player in the framework established for responding to major emergencies.

The sterling assistance provided by the volunteers in the current flooding crisis which grips many parts of the country is a case in point. Over the last two weeks, the volunteers have had full participation in the interagency strategic response groups. Practical examples of their efforts include filling of sandbags, provision of vehicle and boat transport to those stranded by the floods and on-site welfare support for other emergency service personnel. I encountered several Civil Defence personnel everywhere I visited during the recent flooding emergency.

Hundreds of hours of voluntary service were provided by Civil Defence members every day, including weekends, to assist their communities. This was the longest sustained operation involving Civil Defence since the foot and mouth crisis of 2002. I am sure Members will join me in acknowledging the extensive efforts of the Defence Forces, Civil Defence, emergency services and volunteers in tackling the flooding crisis which has wreaked devastation on so many communities. While Civil Defence has been highly visible in supporting flood relief efforts, it should not be forgotten that volunteers are called out every week and weekend of the year to assist the emergency services.

It is acknowledged that those responding to emergencies, be they principal response agencies or volunteer based organisations, have a strong case for funding. However, there are competing demands across the whole spectrum of public service and public funded initiatives. It is not possible to satisfy all demands, particularly in the current economic environment. In the words of the old adage, if everything is a priority, nothing is a priority.

The Minister for Defence is satisfied that the Civil Defence Board and its volunteer members continue to provide an excellent response to the public in cases of emergencies. The benefits of the funding provided to the Civil Defence Board over the past number of years to re-equip the organisation with major items of equipment and professional training were very evident during the flood relief operations. The Minister is happy to consider any proposals which will support the Civil Defence Board in its important work and deliver value for money to the taxpayer, having regard to competing demands and available resources.

Planned expenditure levels for the Department of Defence, including the grant in aid to Civil Defence, will be considered as part of the Estimates and budgetary process for 2010. This will include consideration of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes and the decision on all issues arising will be a matter for the Government. It would, therefore, not be appropriate for me to comment further at this stage pending the outcome of these deliberative processes. I dare say that a figure will be available by next Wednesday.