Dáil Éireann - Volume 387 - 23 February, 1989

Adjournment Debate. - Marine Rescue Service.

An Ceann Comhairle: Deputy Alan Dukes gave me notice of his intention to raise on the Adjournment the subject matter of our marine rescue service. The Deputy has 20 minutes at his disposal and the Minister ten minutes to reply.

Mr. Dukes: Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. With your permission, I intend to share my time with my colleagues, Deputies Madeline Taylor-Quinn and Paddy Harte.

An Ceann Comhairle: Is that agreed? Agreed.

[1569] Mr. Dukes: The question of marine search and rescue services generally has come to our attention tragically again in the light of a disaster yesterday when the Secil Angola went down 200 miles off the coast of County Donegal with the loss, I understand, of 17 lives — the whole crew. That incident is the latest in a succession of incidents that have taken place off our coast. Looking at some of the things that happened, we can see some of the directions in which we should be heading for the future.

It seems the vessel sank at about 7.25 a.m. yesterday morning, over five hours after the first distress call had been sent out. When that distress call was received and relayed by the radio centres, the Royal Air Force scrambled a reconnaissance aircraft, a Nimrod, from a base in Scotland, and two American aircraft, a c.130 aircraft and a helicopter, went from Valley in Wales to the scene. The helicopter was operating at very long range and had to be refulled in flight from the Hercules aircraft. The British RAF also sent two Sea King helicopters from Broadie in Wales. They were operating at the limit of their range and had very little opportunity to stay at the scene of the incident. I understand that those two aircraft are not equipped for refuelling in flight from the only aircraft that was available to do this.

A helicopter based in Ireland on our west coast would have been at the scene of the incident some two hours earlier and those two hours could have made all the difference to the crew on that vessel. As I have said, there have been many other incidents, including some nearer to our coast than yesterday's, where valuable time was lost by the fact that the only suitable helicopters available had first to fly all the way across Ireland in order to get to the scene.

The situation has not changed much. It certainly has not changed at all in the last two years as far as the response to incidents of that kind is concerned. I will admit that the Government have not been totally inactive in this. They have done two things. The first is that last week, on 16 February, the Minister for [1570] Defence announced that he was carrying out some upgrading of equipment at Finner Camp to enable search and rescue helicopters to operate at that location. He said the new equipment to be purchased includes obstruction and approach lighting and dual distance measuring equipment. That is welcome and was obviously needed but I would have to say — and I am not carping at this — that the Minister, in making that statement, was gilding the lily more than a little because that equipment is needed at Finner Camp anyway in order to give the Air Corps the ability to conduct operations there at what the Minister has called military high risk operation standard, visibility of 800 metres or more, cloud base 50 feet or above. That is something that needed to be done anyway. While it is a welcome step in improving search and rescue services it was not undertaken, and it cannot be pretended that it was undertaken, primarily as a move in the direction of improving the service.

On the same day, 16 February, the Minister for the Marine issued a press statement under the heading “Department of the Marine. Daly Announces High Powered Group to Review Air Sea Rescue Services”. The Minister announced that he had established a group of national and international experts to review air-sea rescue services and listed the names of the persons involved. I am quite sure that all of those persons are expert and dedicated persons in their field. I know a number of them and I know that is the case, but we do not need a committee. The Minister, the Minister for Defence or the House does not need a committee to decide what needs to be done in order to revamp or upgrade our search and rescue services to meet the need that is there off our west coast. With the greatest of respect to the people on that committee, I would have to say that in the case of most of them, their advice would be readily available to the Government anyway without going to the trouble of setting up a committee. I can see that move only as being another long-fingered exercise in relation to the [1571] development of search and rescue services.

We need to rethink our approach. We need to look at what the real need is, as I have said, and decide what steps we can take to meet that need. I do not think it would be right for me to pretend that we can do it all in one go. I do not believe that is the case and I do not intend to try to deceive anybody into believing that it is the case, but the direction we have to go in is very clear. The need is to have a capacity on the western coast to conduct both short range and long range search and rescue operations. We need a capacity on the west coast to conduct long range and short range operations that can actually pluck people off vessels at sea or out of the sea.

That means we need a helicopter capacity that we do not now have. We have a short range capacity although there are limitations on that. The Dauphin helicopters are an enormous improvement on the equipment that had previously been available to the Air Corps. They can operate at relatively short ranges over the sea. They can operate on and off at least one of our naval vessels. In that regard they are an improvement on what was available before but there is a limited series of duties they can undertake, even more limited by the fact that for an operation further out from the coast we need to have both the naval vessel and the helicopter in place at the same time. It is very clear that we need a long range heavy lift capability also. It would not take a very large vessel to exceed the capacity of the Dauphin helicopters to rescue the crew.

The steps we need to take are clear. We need to do five different things. First, we need to revamp the equipment and the operations of the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre so that it can stay in constant touch with all the rescue services and so that all the units of the rescue services at the scene of an incident can communicate directly both with the MRCC and with each other. Secondly, we need to locate the current Dauphin helicopters at a new base, at Shannon, [1572] with aircraft being detached on rotation to Finner in County Donegal.

I have undertaken an examination of what that would mean. Some time ago in my own party we carried out a small experiment. We hired a helicopter to make a trip from Shannon to Inishmore to the Regional Hospital in Galway and back to Shannon. Having done that I can tell the House that that operation, starting off from Shannon, saved an hour and a half compared with the time that would have been taken by a helicopter leaving from Dublin. It saved about four hours compared with the time that would have been required for a helicopter to come from England or Wales. That hour and a half compared with basing the aircraft in Dublin or the four hours compared with the use of aircraft based in England and Wales could be the crucial time that would allow us to save lives that would otherwise be lost.

We need also, as an immediate step, to enter into a contractual arrangement with a private sector operator to provide a long range high capacity helicopter equipped for search and rescue missions. I am quite sure that the Minister and the Minister for Defence know pertectly well that there are many precedents for this kind of service. I am informed that there are at least two firms that would be willing to enter into that kind of arrangement with our Government here. That would add immeasurably to our ability to deal with incidents off our west coast. We should then decide to monitor the operation of the search and rescue services over a period with a view to determining the permanent acquisition of long range search and rescue helicopter capacity. I have no doubt, a Cheann Comhairle, that our Air Corps, who are doing an extremely good job with the limited equipment they have, would be capable of developing to the point where they could acquire the skills and the abilities necessary to mount that kind of operation.

Finally we should put in place, in conjunction with the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre and the search and rescue services, a network of on-call [1573] doctors around the coast, including doctors in coastal hospitals and general practitioners. There is a gap in our services that is not very difficult to fill once we have identified the gap. I would recommend that action to fill that gap be undertaken immediately.

It has been quite some time since this debate started and not so long ago, indeed, some months ago, a group called the West Coast Search and Rescue and Action Committee produced a very comprehensive report on this subject. To a very large extent the recommendations I have made here are based on recommendations that are made in that report. There is no mystery about what we should do and how we should do it.

During Question Time in this House on 16 March 1988 — Official Report, column 366 — my colleague, Deputy Connaughton, asked the Minister for Defence if he intended to place one of the new rescue helicopters in the western area of the country. The Minister gave what I would have to call a stonewalling answer and talked about the extra resources that would be needed to make that possible. In my view he exaggerated the need for extra resources because I do not believe the need would be as great as the Minister for Defence suggested if we were to locate the helicopters at Shannon and make the provision which has been started on at Finner and possibly at the airport beside Galway into useable staging posts. I recognise that some extra resources would be required. The question that was then put to the Minister for Defence, and which I put again tonight, is simply this. We know there is a plan to decentralise a part of the Department of Defence to Galway. I know this Government are keen on decentralisation. It is very good for the towns and cities to which parts of Departments are decentralised and obviously it gives a lift to the local economy in those areas but it does not add anything to the total national cake because we still have the same number of people at work. It would seem legitimate to ask where our priorities lie in relation to the general expenditure of the Department of Defence. It will cost [1574] money to decentralise some part of that Department. I suggest, given the crying need we have for adequate search and rescue coverage on our west coast, that we should give that a higher priority than the simple transfer of civil servants from Dublin to Galway.

I would invite the Minister for the Marine, although he may feel a little reticent in expressing a view on another Department, to reflect on that and to consider whether we would not be doing a better job for our own seafaring people, for people who use the ocean to the west and who fly over the ocean to the west, by giving a higher priority to filling in the gaps in our search and rescue services than by moving civil servants, I do not intend any disrespect to the people who are moving. The Minister must know that if you look at any representation of where our search and rescue services are located and superimpose on that any kind of pictorial history of where the incidents happened, the place where we have a big weakness is all down the west coast. It is there we need to put resources.

My request to the Government is to rethink their position on this issue, to move away from what seems to be a very conservative reaction that takes no account of the need which exists for the service and to take on board the five suggestions I have made. That can all be done within the compass of the resources we have at the moment. They would be doing a worthwhile job for the people of our west coast, for the people of our islands and for people who fly over or sail on the seas to the west of this country.

An Ceann Comhairle: I advise Deputy Harte that some four minutes now remain of the time allotted to Deputy Dukes and his parliamentary colleagues.

Mr. Harte: The argument has been made for the need to have an air-sea rescue service on the west coast. I do not think I should go into the detail of that again. Recently an American lost his life because we were not able to respond fast enough to his radio call for help. I could spend the night talking about the tragedies [1575] of fishermen in County Donegal. The most appalling was that of a young boy who jumped off a boat which was on a rock in an attempt to push it away. He stood on the rock and waited for four hours to be rescued but as the tide was rising he lost his life. That was all because we do not have proper air-sea rescue arrangements.

I should like to say that I generally believe this Government do not have the money to provide the type of service we require. It may be that the taxpayers in Ireland do not have the ability to put up that kind of money. That may be the argument the Government will put forward but responsibility for air-sea rescue is such that it is no longer confined to the fishermen of the west coast or to the Irish aircraft or sea vessels. It is an international responsibility and it should be Europeanised. We are now part of the European Community and the Community should accept its responsibility and recognise that we, a small nation, need money to back up the type of services the leader of my party has outlined.

There are different ways of dealing with the issue; the problems are not insurmountable. If we have a commitment, we can do it. The arguments have been put forward by groups on the west coast who are agitating for a better air-sea rescue service. The members cross all the political divides and there is no political dimension to their campaign. They see that this matter is crying out for attention by the Government. Everything has been crystallised by the litany of tragedies along the coast from the south to the north — we can no longer ignore this issue.

For the Government to say that they do not have the resources for an air-sea rescue is not acceptable or an excuse for not doing anything about it. I implore the Minister to look at the matter afresh, and to consider the arguments put forward by Deputy Dukes. There are grounds for reconsidering the Government's present position and in the interests of everybody who goes to sea in ships, or indeed in [1576] planes crossing the Atlantic, there is an obligation on us to do something about air-sea rescue. If the Government do not have the money, I ask the Minister to ask the European Community to understand the very heavy responsibility on this nation for air-sea rescue off our coast because it is not just a matter of looking after our fishermen or the inhabitants of this island.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: I would like to reiterate everything that Deputy Dukes said in the five points he put forward for the Minister to consider, the first being the revamping of the communication services of the marine rescue service in Shannon so that they could act as a co-ordinating force. This is vitally important because in many instances there is a need for medical advice to be given from the shore and it is important that the advice be readily available to the people in difficulties at sea. There is also a need to upgrade the VHF radio system. There are parts of the west coast, between Ballinrobe and west Clare and along the south-east coast which do not have that system. This should be considered in the overall revamping of the radio system.

In addition, it is very important that the Minister would ensure that the trawlers are examined every year rather than when they are just first purchased to ensure that they have the proper facilities on board to make contact with the shore.

As Deputy Dukes has said, we are asking the Minister to redeploy resources that are available to Government. The facilities and the resources are there but it is a matter of political will to do something about the matter. If this House fails to act and people lose their lives because of some bureaucratic tangle between the Department of Defence and the Department of the Marine and the setting up of a further committee, what consolation is that to the family in County Donegal or in Counties Galway and Kerry, or indeed in Spain who lose a father or a brother? We have a responsibility to face the problem. The resources are available and it is only a matter of a Government decision to deploy them.

[1577] Minister for the Marine (Mr. Daly): This is a very wide issue and it is very difficult to give an adequate reply in the space of the few minutes that are available to me. I am glad to have this opportunity to put on record the facts in relation to the overall search and rescue service. In recent times there has been misapprehension about the service and its capacity and ability to deal effectively with the crises we have had in recent times and may have in the future.

The Marine Rescue Co-ordinating Centre at Shannon is responsible for the reception and dissemination of information relating to maritime distress signals operating in the sea areas covered by the centre and for the co-ordination of marine rescue measures in these areas. The centre at Shannon operates on a 24-hour basis. I would now like to reply to the first point raised by the Leader of the Opposition and wish to state that we have already indicated our intention to revamp the equipment in the Marine Rescue Co-ordinating Centre in Shannon and that work is already under way.

The system of marine search and rescue in the State involves a number of agencies, including the Air Corps, the Naval Service, the coast lifesaving service, the coast radio stations, the port authorities, the Garda Síochána and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The Marine Rescue Co-ordinating Centre can also ask for assistance from the British Navy, the Royal Air Force and the British Coastguard Service. In addition, shipping in the vicinity of a casualty in a position to assist can be called upon by the centre in Shannon.

Ireland has an understanding with the UK in search and rescue matters, and they provide us with search and rescue helicopters and aircraft to carry out missions over waters within our area of responsibility, that is the Shannon Flight Information region. On the west coast, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution have four long-range lifeboat stations at Aranmore in County Donegal, Galway Bay, Valentia and in Baltimore, County Cork. The effective range of these four stations has been doubled in recent years [1578] by the installation of fast modern craft. Last November the institution decided to establish a new station in Ballyglass, County Mayo, and has placed a 52 foot lifeboat there. With this new station the entire west coast will have lifeboat coverage up to the required standard.

Two inshore stations at Lough Swilly and Clifden have also been established. Fifteen coast lifesaving service stations are located on the west coast, from Waterville on the south-west to Greencastle in the north-west and all these stations have been progressively modernised in recent times. A programme has been undertaken that will provide each station with up-to-date rescue and communications equipment and volunteers trained in their use.

There are two very highly trained cliff rescue units, one based in Doolin — I am sure Deputy Taylor-Quinn is familiar with it — and the second team is currently being trained in Greencastle, County Donegal. In fact, it was the coast lifesaving service that carried out the very successful rescue of 11 crewmen from the fishing vessel Big Cat which sank in Valentia on 13 January. Let me say that even though there were helicopters standing by on that occasion they were powerless to intervene in that incident. Because of the weather conditions at the time they could not play any part other than take the people off the cliff top when they had been rescued by the local coast lifesaving service using equipment which we had bought from the UK authorities. The breeches buoy equipment was discarded in the UK in the past couple of years and we have bought it for use in the service. Those 11 lives were saved by that equipment and without it they might well have been lost. The helicopters were standing by at the time, in addition to the lifeboat, but they were powerless to intervene in that particular incident.

I want to express my appreciation of the skill and dedication of the people in the coast lifesaving service in this and in many other incidents because at times, and in that particular case, they put their personal safety at risk in very difficult and dangerous situations. They certainly [1579] deserve our commendation for their courageous attempt to get the people off the boat.

In the past year we have installed a new VHF maritime radio service all around the coastline with the exception of one or two blank spots, but we hope to complete it this year and we will then have modern, sophisticated VHF radio coverage service. We spent over £700,000 in the provision of that service last year putting in a very modern, sophisticated service. In fact, this service picked up the distress signal from the ship in difficulty during the past couple of days and it then passed that information to the British co-ordinating centre because the ship was in the area of responsibility of the British authorities. They took the necessary action on receipt of notification from Valentia.

The Naval Service and the Air Corps provide assistance when requested and three of the five Dauphin helicopters are dedicated to search and rescue operations. They now have a 24-hour capability. One of the criticisms we had in the last year was that even though the Dauphins were in the service, people had not been trained and experienced in operating them at night. This was regarded as a handicap in the overall service. Due to the time and effort that the Air Corps have put into night training, the Dauphins can now successfully operate on a 24 hour basis. That was clearly demonstrated on 13 January when the four crew members of the Gladonia were airlifted to safety when the ship ran aground in Tramore. It was clearly demonstrated that the Air Corps now have the capacity to deal with emergencies at night time. Training is progressing at Shannon to develop the capabilities of the crews. They can now operate under cloud conditions at night time off the west coast.

The provision of a helicopter search and rescue service is only part of the overall service that can be provided in emergencies like this. We are satisfied that one of the most important aspects of the search and rescue operation is the [1580] availability of radio communications. That is why we have spent a sum of over £700,000 on the provision of a sophisticated VHF service covering the coast, to which we have now also linked in the Shannon Marine Co-Ordinating Centre. One of the criticisms of the service was that Shannon was not linked in with it. They are now linked in.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: When will the Minister bring the helicopters down?

Mr. Daly: They are down already. The Deputy would not be aware of that because she has not been keeping as up-to-date with the developments as she should have been. If the Deputy was up-to-date she would have known about it.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: There is no helicopter base at Shannon.

Mr. Dukes: Do not try to pretend.

(interruptions.)

Mr. Daly: The Deputy would have known that helicopters have been training in Shannon for some time.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: The helicopters are there but there is no helicopter base in Shannon. There is a significant difference there.

An Ceann Comhairle: Let us hear the Minister out; he has three minutes to conclude his speech.

Mr. Daly: As the Minister for Defence already indicated, Finner Camp in County Donegal is being upgraded to enable the search and rescue helicopters to operate at this location and the new equipment including the approach lighting and the dual distance measuring equipment and all the other technical equipment needed is being provided there. It will enable the Air Corps to operate the Dauphin helicopters to military high risk operation standards, taking into account all the cloud base levels and other conditions in that type of situation.

[1581] Let us hope that this new equipment will be installed within five or six months.

The Government fully recognise that in the operation of the search and rescue services it is vital that operations be undertaken in a co-ordinated co-operating way bearing in mind that the service is based on the co-operation of agencies, voluntary effort and international agreement and requirements. In that regard I pay tribute to our service which played a magnificent role in the rescue of the crew of the Yarrawonga and who helped in ensuring that the ship would not come on to our shores.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: They would have done better if the resources had been in the proper location.

Mr. Daly: The rescue services are a combination of arrangements involving all the executive arms of the State and on that occasion it resulted in a very successful operation where the lives were saved in atrocious weather conditions.

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Dukes: That is all recognised, Minister, but what has he to say about the rescue operations that cannot take place?

Mr. Daly: I am taking this opportunity to put on record the magnificent achievement of our search and rescue services which were highly complimented by the American authorities at Shannon during that operation. They were loud in their praise of the co-operation, expertise and professionalism of our rescue services.

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Daly: The US Coastguard Service and the UK Coastguard Service who helped out in that situation were more than complimentary with regard to the co-operation, the competence and expertise of the assistance they got from the Irish services on that occasion. I want to put on record my appreciation of the work done. In some of these locations people have put their lives and personal [1582] safety at risk. It was unfortunate and tragic that lives were lost on the occasion to which the Deputy referred but every possible effort was made. As the Deputies are well aware, the incident referred to took place over 300 miles from the coast of North-West Donegal/Scotland. Helicopters went there in outrageous weather conditions and there were fears for the lives of the people in those helicopters.

Mr. Dukes: Aircraft based in Ireland would have been two hours earlier. That is the bottom line.

Mr. Daly: It is fine for Deputies to come in here and make bland statements about the search and rescue services and about what should be done. It is fine also for people in self-appointed committees to make bland statements about matters about which they are not fully informed.

Mrs. Taylor-Quinn: Loss of lives is the bottom line.

Mr. Daly: The final responsibility rests with the Department of the Marine and with Government Departments and agencies here. When we are making decisions of this nature we have one overriding principle in mind, that is, the improvement and modernisation of an effective, efficient service which will meet the needs as they arise.

Mr. Dukes: And set up another committee.

Mr. Daly: We are getting the best possible international advice available. I put on record our appreciation of those people from the European Community, from the American Coastguard Service and from the UK Coastguard Service who are now helping us to make recommendations as to the best possible way to deal with this situation.

(Interruptions.)

Mr. Daly: We will deal with the situation as effectively as we have in the last [1583] year by providing the necessary resources to deal with some of the shortcomings we found in the service. Very little attention was paid to this area by the previous Government——

Mr. Dukes: Who bought the helicopter?

[1584] Mr. Daly: ——during four years in office. They did absolutely nothing except——

(Interruptions.)

The Dáil adjourned at 8.20 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 28 February 1989.