Thursday, 28 January 2016
Search and Rescue Service
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. This matter concerns the need for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport to outline the available structures and funding sources available to support a new and emerging group called the Oranmore-Maree coastal search unit, whose purpose is to search for missing persons who may have fallen into the water in Galway city. Sadly, many people have lost their lives this way. Bodies sometime emerge in the area where I live.
The rate can be unbelievable and, on average, eight to nine bodies are found every year along the coastal area of Oranmore, Maree and Renville. It is the scientific nature of tides that this is the area where the bodies tend to come up. The Minister of State will know from media reports that we have all been touched recently by the sad death of young Michael Bugler from Ennis, who after approximately 21 days was found in our local area. This event touched everybody and in our area we had, on average, 300 volunteers per day looking for the man. These included people from Galway and Ennis, where he was from, who came together to congregate in Calasanctious College and Oranmore community centre. We were lucky to have that facility because this happened over the Christmas period. We would not always have that type of space but we did because it was Christmas. Sadly, another young man from my own local parish, Donal Greene, passed away tragically earlier last year. He was from our area but he died in Cavan. Our community moved to Cavan and we saw how the local community there came out.
What emerges from this is that although there is a strong volunteer spirit, we need to be better organised. The Garda and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have let us know they are often searching for people on their own. A very clear wish has emerged that we need at least 60 trained volunteers who will be able to cope, for example, with finding a body. They should have the appropriate training and clothing. So many people come along with goodwill, and we could never stop them, but we need trained leaders in each of the search zones. We have worked out that there are 16 search zones from Galway city down to north Clare along the coast. We are giving leadership and, locally, we can cover at least eight of those. We have met representatives of the Garda and RNLI and they are delighted with this offer of help but they have said they need greater support.
We are seeking very basic funding to get started, which will probably be up to €10,000. The training of 60 volunteers is estimated at approximately €100 each. Proper clothing is also required, along with high-visibility vests, boots and prototype information sheets to allow distribution of the right information to all search volunteers before they come into any daily search. It is unbelievable that we are talking about this. Prevention is the best cure and it is another element. It is a sad reality that many of our young people fall into the water, accidentally or otherwise, around Galway city and the Claddagh or docks area in particular.
This is the voice of the public reaching out to the Minister. I am deeply moved by the work of this group, of which I am a part. This may be our last sitting in Seanad Éireann in this session and it would be great to end it by getting the goodwill of the Minister. Will the Minister of State indicate where we can find funding and make a commitment to this?
I am taking this matter on behalf of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Donohoe, as he could not be here. He sends his apologies. I thank the Senator for raising this matter on the issue of missing persons, which is obviously of importance to us all and to the country but also, acutely, to those who have lost loved ones in this way. The Senator has correctly referred to the great work done by many groups involved with search and rescue. I am familiar with my own group, Meath river rescue, which is based in Navan and does great work offering support and hope to families trying to find a loved one. It is important that we support that as best we can both in a voluntary capacity and through our work in various Departments. It can be a difficult time for families and it is important that we do everything we can to help.
Maritime search and rescue is the responsibility of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. Primary responsibility for this has been delegated to the Irish Coast Guard, which is a division within the Department. The Coast Guard co-ordinates maritime search and rescue services at sea and leads and co-ordinates national participation in search and rescue and safety-related initiatives of the International Maritime Organisation. An Garda Síochána is responsible for missing persons and for land-based search and rescue. As Galway city and Oranmore are inland areas, the matters raised by the Senator are essentially matters for An Garda Síochána and the Department of Justice and Equality.
In the event that the Coast Guard is requested to provide assistance in the adjacent coastal area, such as Galway Bay, the immediately available resources are Costello Bay Coast Guard unit, the Doolin and the Aran Island Coast Guard units and the Shannon-based Coast Guard helicopter. The area is also served by the RNLI, which has a lifeboat in Galway and would also respond to incidents as tasked by the Coast Guard in such an event.
As I have indicated, missing persons matters come under the remit of the Garda. The Garda Síochána is also responsible for mountain search and rescue co-ordination in Ireland. The Defence Forces, in aid to the civil authority or power, may also engage in search and rescue activities on land, mountains, inland lakes or rivers. My Department pays annual grants to designated mountain rescue teams and designated community operated rescue services which are known as Community Rescue Boats Ireland. The role of paying annual grants to the mountain rescue teams was assigned to the Irish Coast Guard from the Department of Justice and Equality some years back in the interests of certain administrative efficiencies. Community rescue boat teams have a formal relationship with the Irish Coast Guard, on foot of which they are designated as declared resources. The CRBIs are primarily self-funded groups that are equipped with rescue boats and associated facilities.
In conclusion, I regret to say that the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has no basis or financial resources to provide funding to groups other than the mountain rescue and the CRBI. I believe that the mechanisms we have in place, which encompass the Garda, the Irish Coast Guard and the Defence Forces, are in good shape to deal with the horror of missing person cases when they occur and, hopefully, they will bring them to a positive conclusion. That said, we are interested in hearing further about what the Senator thinks and there is no doubt that we will engage further on this important topic. I suggest, from my own involvement with Leader, that perhaps the Senator's group would be successful if it applied for Leader funding. The Senator should find out whether a Leader or partnership group operates in the Galway area and, if so, whether it will work with the Senator's team to finance some of this project. I know that such initiatives have been successful in the past.
I am grateful for the Minister of State's reply. I neglected to say at the outset that when a person falls in the water there is a golden hour within which a person can be saved. Therefore, the more prepared we are and the more supports that are available to the Garda and others, the better. My motion is about saving lives. I wish to check what the Minister of State's said in his reply. I heard him mention Leader funding and thank him for his prompt response. Is he saying that mountain rescue and CRBI would qualify for funding? I do not know how my initiative would qualify as mountain rescue. By the way, Oranmore-Maree is a coastal region and is located right on the edge of water. I heard the way that the Minister of State outlined his measures. Under those measures, within his Department, are we likely to qualify for funding?
I have outlined the resources that are available in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the main category is mountain rescue and the CRBI. It may be worthwhile for the Senator's group to consult the CRBI to see whether it would come under the remit of the CRBI. As a Deputy operating in the Meath region, I can confirm that I have worked very closely with Leader and Meath Partnership to secure funding for the Meath River Rescue organisation, an inland service that does similar and important work as done by the group mentioned by the Senator. I did not promise or guarantee funding. I simply suggested another mechanism that the Senator could explore, one where she could see if there is an opportunity for development.