Seanad debates

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

4:00 am

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to hear the Adjournment matter on this very important and emotive issue for all citizens who live in the south-east region. No one knows when an accident or emergency at sea or any place will occur. It is ridiculous that this Government is once again cutting our frontline emergency services in an attempt to save costs without any transparency around the decision or any regard for the consequences or for saving lives. I understand the savings in this case are estimated to be €1 million.

The south-east helicopter search and rescue service had its busiest year last year with 115 call-outs. I understand the Cabinet has already agreed to cut this service, based in Waterford Airport, from a 24 hour to a 12 hour service. How many lives will be lost before the Government recognises it cannot and must not shut down this essential emergency service? This latest cut will mean any casualty whether a swimmer, a fisherman or otherwise, who gets into difficulty after 9 p.m. off the south-east coast must wait an extra 40 minutes at least for the arrival of a sea rescue helicopter from a base other than Waterford Airport. This time lag will mean the difference between life and death in the majority of incidences.

The Waterford base is included in a recently published document entitled A Search and Rescue Framework for Emergency Management, which I have before me. It is dated 2 March 2010. I understand it is a controlled document which means, I presume, the Minister and Department officials are privy to certain information not available to the public. I would be interested to know the full details of this document. It was prepared by the experts in this area. I am very concerned that for savings of €1 million the accountants in the Department of Transport are dictating that emergency services such as this helicopter service are to be cut.

The new contract allows for an increased budget. The Minister for Transport informs us it will improve the service because it will mean that faster, newer helicopters can be provided from the other three bases. I have news for the Minister. It is not an improved service. In fact, it is a diminished service that is neglecting the needs of an entire population of the south-east region and beyond because the waters off the south-east coast are very busy and are used for shipping, boating, swimming, fishing and many other purposes. It is essential this service is retained.

More than 20,000 members have signed up to a Facebook campaign opposing this measure. These members have emerged in the space of several days, representing a very significant response and this shows the great concern in response to the proposed cut.

The contract for this change has not yet been signed and there is still time to review this decision. I appeal to the Minister and the Cabinet to review the decision and to provide full transparency in respect of why this cut is being imposed and why the people of the south east are being treated on an unequal basis relative to those in other parts of the country. This is an illogical decision. We are an island nation, surrounded by water. However, we are cutting one of the most essential services provided by the Government almost one decade ago, a fact which I acknowledge. It is important that this service should be retained. I look forward to hearing the response of the Minister for State, as do thousands of people in the south east and beyond. What is the Government doing to retain this service and to protect what is an essential emergency service?

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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): I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak on the subject of the search and rescue helicopter service on behalf of my colleague the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey. There has been much ill informed comment about the proposed new helicopter contract. Since we are in the standstill period of the procurement process and about to commence contract negotiations, I am somewhat constrained in what can be said. However, I outline the following points. The new contract has been presented as a cutback in services but nothing could be further from the truth. Far from being a cutback, the contract is a vast half a billion euro investment in maritime search and rescue capability on the island. The new contract will cost significantly more on an annual basis than the current contract because of the improved services to be provided. The proposed contract represents a dramatic increase in funding for SAR helicopter services in Ireland from approximately €30 million to €50 million per annum. This is an increase in difficult circumstances of €20 million a year in this service alone. The Government has also approved the retention of four helicopter bases, including Waterford, for a period to at least 2023.

The new contract represents a stepped improvement in the capacity, range, speed and capability of Ireland's SAR service. The existing contract expires on 30 June but includes a once-off option to flexibly extend individual bases by different lengths up to a maximum of three years, up to 30 June 2013. The Government, therefore, decided to replace the current fleet at significant additional cost - approximately €20 million per annum.

Modern helicopters are much more capable than the current aircraft. They fly at a speed of about 150 knots, can lift more people from further out at sea and are usually able to fly in cloud. They are also more available and dependable, requiring less routine maintenance and being less prone to breakdown.

Bidders were required to quote for a number of alternative options by which the target level of service could be provided. A preferred bidder has now been nominated and the Department of Transport is in the standstill period before contract negotiations can begin.

The annual cost will increase substantially as a result of the provision of modern helicopters. This increased cost will have to be found from within the Department of Transport's existing budget. However, they will deliver a marked improvement in the service. The new helicopters will fly to the scene of a mission faster, find vessels or persons in the water more efficiently, using better search, surveillance and tracking tools, winch them to safety more quickly, provide better medical facilities on board and return them to safety in the shortest possible time.

I, again, confirm that there will be no change in 24-hour availability from the Waterford base before July 2013. Furthermore, the future of Waterford Airport as a base for a Coast Guard SAR helicopter will be cemented until at least 2023. While a 12-hour contract is to be negotiated for the post-2013 period, the Government is committed to keeping the position under review in the light of operational requirements at Waterford and the availability of funding. To put the 12-hour operation in context, in 2009 this would have required 13 of the 113 missions flown from Waterford to be met from another base. In some cases the new helicopters would have arrived earlier but, on average, the additional time required would have been about ten minutes.

In the three years to 2013 the following factors will be considered: the ability of neighbouring search and rescue resources to successfully reach those incidents and effect a rescue; the development of the UK helicopter search and rescue service which will occur at the same time as the Irish changeover and which use the same helicopters; the availability of other search and rescue resources such as lifeboats; changes in the frequency, times, location or pattern of incidents in the area, and financial resources. Thereafter the level of incidents and response times at Waterford will continue to be kept under review during the ten-year contract period.

At national level, in difficult financial circumstances, the new contract is a major recognition by the Government of the value of the Irish Coast Guard and the communities it serves. It is also a substantial commitment to the continuing development of maritime safety services.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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This does not do anything more to reassure me or the people of the south-east region. The Minister of State has stated there has been much ill-informed comment. I suggest the response she has given has ill-informed the public. She has mentioned there is co-ordination with UK search and rescue services. I have news for her. Services are also being diminished in the south-west region of the United Kingdom where helicopter services are being relocated inland.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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A question, please.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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My question is as follows. How on earth can the Minister of State see this as an improvement when there is a reduction in the number of hours and cover from a 24-hour to a 12-hour service?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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That is not an improvement. The Minister of State has stated the helicopters used will reach the area of crisis or emergency faster. That is fine if they are based in Waterford, but if they are travelling from Shannon, Dublin or Sligo, how on earth could they be faster in responding to an emergency?

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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Hear, hear.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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What the Minister of State has told the House is pure rubbish and the people of the south east will not accept it. I will not accept it. I am emotive about the issue. The Government will face stiff opposition in implementing this measure from the people of the south east and across all parties.

Photo of Áine BradyÁine Brady (Minister of State with special responsibility for Older People and Health Promotion, Department of Health and Children; Minister of State, Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government; Minister of State, Department of Social and Family Affairs; Kildare North, Fianna Fail)
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There will be no change until July 2013.

Photo of Paudie CoffeyPaudie Coffey (Fine Gael)
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This is a serious issue, on which the Government is not reading the public mood.