Seanad Éireann - Volume 121 - 18 January, 1989
Adjournment Matter. - Air/Sea Rescue Services.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: I have notice from Senator John Connor that he proposes to raise the following matter: the need for the Minister for the Marine to relocate the national air and sea rescue services from Baldonnel to Connaught Regional Airport. I call Senator John Connor. The Senator has 20 minutes and the Minister will have ten to reply.
Mr. Connor Mr. Connor
 Mr. Connor: I thank you, a Leas-Chathaoirlgh, for allowing me time to raise this important issue. I am somewhat unhappy about the title of the matter raised because it was hurriedly submitted on Monday and I would not want to give the impression that I wanted all the air and sea rescue services relocated away from Baldonnel. What we are seeking here is that a portion or a significant part of this service be located along the west coast.
The matter raised on the Adjournment this evening is prompted into extreme urgency by three sea rescue dramas off the west coast and one off the south coast last week. Sadly, at least four lives were lost. For several years now there has been a debate to relocate some sea rescue helicopters from their present location at Baldonnel to a location on the west coast where most of the life and death emergencies at sea occur. Last week's three dramas, tragic and all as they were, that took place immediately off our shoreline at the Aran Islands, Tramore and Valentia Island were pretty typical of what frequently takes place off our coasts during storms, particularly in winter.
The Atlantic Ocean is often a cruel and bad-tempered neighbour and it is on that area of sea around us that we must concentrate most of our sea rescue services I submit. For that reason I am requesting in raising this matter that the Government now move three of our Air Corps and Naval helicopters to the west coast and I propose that Connaught Regional Airport at Charlestown, County Mayo, is the ideal central location for these emergency services. There are proposals to locate helicopters at Shannon where the Marine Rescue Co-ordination Service is and at Finner Camp near Bundoran, County Donegal. All these proposals have their merits but both places are rather lopsided in location in relation to the rest of the western coastline. Connaught Regional Airport has none of these lopsided characteristics. It is in the middle of the western coastline and there is no valid argument that it is too far inland as the airport is only minutes in flying time from the sea. The  board of the airport are willing to allow a helicopter or helicopters to be based here and are willing to improve apron facilities if the need arises to accommodate aircraft.
The Minister may argue here this evening that it is costly to relocate helicopters to the west coast but in matters of life or death, which happen frequently, costs — and they are not enormous — must be seen as secondary. Last year there was one well publicised case where an unfortunate man died of injuries on board ship off the Mayo coast. Had he been picked up sooner by helicopter it is generally agreed that his life would have been saved.
In the last five years our sea rescue helicopter service has been called out on 317 occasions. Many of those calls would not be life or death cases in the accepted sense, but many of them were and the majority of these life and death emergencies were off the western seaboard in the Atlantic. That fact, more than any other, makes the case for locating the larger part of our sea rescue services close to or on the coastline where most of the emergencies occur. We do not argue that the services should be fully removed from Baldonnel. We argue that the greater part of the air/sea rescue services be moved to where they can have the maximum proximity advantage, to where the problems mostly occur. In that context the Connaught Regional Airport has that proximity advantage more than any other place.
There is one other very compelling reason to locate services on the west coast. The west coast is very poorly served by the lifeboat service which is by and large a voluntary service. Of six lifeboats operated by the Royal Irish Lifeboat Institute only two operate from west coast ports. This country needs larger and longer range helicopters attached to our Air Corps and Navy. This week we commissioned two new Navy ships: the LE Orla and the LE Ciara. This is a positive development not just in conventional defence terms because that function is almost redundant nowadays. We need these ships to use with onboard  helicopters for fishery protection, for marine rescue and, of course, to control smuggling of shiploads of lethal arms as, for example the Eksund, and drugs.
When we allocate funds again for new defence purchases our priority must be for the purchase of the long-range helicopters of the Puma and Sea King type. We should use these craft with the naval ships LE Eithne, LE Orla and LE Ciara as a single unit or corps primarily for fishery protection, marine rescue and control of lethal smuggling. Some of these latter points I admit, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, are not included in the request in the Adjournment Matter. Nevertheless they are germane to protecting our coasts and the people who for one good reason or another must use the waters around this island and especially the cruel sea off the west coast.
There our case rests. We believe our arguments would be difficult to gainsay. Last week's events brought the problem once again into public focus. Last year, and indeed almost in every year that we can remember, there were events that brought home to us the inadequacies of the location of our sea rescue services. On all past occasions we failed to act. If we are to take any lesson from last week's events then we must act now.
From what I have heard the Minister say publicly I believe he is moving in the direction of relocating the major part of our marine rescue services and I urge him to get enough Cabinet support to make reality out of this very urgent life and death request. We hope that what we call this enlightened decision that not just I but many others are making is taken before the ripples of last week's events dissipate and disappear. We hope the Connaught Regional Airport will be the new central location for relocated services and that we will be servicing the very exposed and very dangerous west coast waters of this country.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Minister has ten minutes to respond.
Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. P. Gallagher) Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. P. Gallagher)
Minister of State at the Department of the Marine (Mr. P. Gallagher): The  matter on the Adjournment raised by Senator Connor refers to the need for the Minister for the Marine to relocate the national air and sea rescue services from Baldonnell to the Connaught Regional Airport. This surprised me, but Senator Connor has clarified his position. Before I make specific reference to the Connaught Regional Airport, I would like to make some general references to the search and rescue services.
The Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre, known as MRCC, is responsible for the reception and dissemination of information relating to marine distress signals originating in the sea areas covered by the centre and for the co-ordination of marine rescue measures in these areas. The centre is located at Shannon Airport and is operated on a 24 hour basis by the Department of Tourism and Transport's air traffic services. The system of marine search and rescue in the State involves a number of agencies, including the Air Corps, the Naval Service, the Coast Life Saving Service, CLSS, the coast radio stations, port authorities, the Garda Síochána, and the RNLI. The MRCC can also ask for assistance when needed from the British Navy, the RAF and the British coastguard. In addition, shipping in the vicinity of a casualty, and in a position to assist, may be called upon by the centre.
I want to refer to the facilities that are available on the west coast. The Senator referred to two long range lifeboat stations: there are in fact four there and the fifth is coming on stream in County Mayo. The four are situated at Arranmore in County Donegal, Galway Bay, Valentia in County Kerry and Baltimore in County Cork. The effective range of these four stations has been doubled in recent years by the installation of fast modern craft. In November last the institution decided to established a new station at Ballyglass, County Mayo, and station a 52 ft. Arun class lifeboat there. With this new station the entire west coast will have lifeboat coverage up to the required standard.
Fifteen of the 54 CLSS stations are located on the west coast from Waterville  in the south-west to Greencastle on the north-west coast. All CLSS stations have been progressively modernised in recent times and a programme has been undertaken which will provide each station with up-to-date rescue and communications equipment and train volunteers in their use. A highly trained cliff rescue unit of CLSS is based at Doolin, County Clare, and a similar unit is at present being trained at Greencastle, County Donegal. It is appropriate to refer to the CLSS, because they carried out the successful rescue of 11 crew members of the motor fishing vessel, Big Cat, at Valentia last week. Some countries have decided to dispense with the services of the CLSS, but they may review that now in view of recent events off Valentia.
The Naval Service and the Air Corps also provide assistance when requested. Three of the five Dauphin helicopters are dedicated to search and rescue operations and now have a 24-hour capability. While the Gladonia off Tramore, to which the Senator referred, was in no imminent danger last week, I would like to make the point that four of the crew were airlifted to safety by the Air Corps Dauphin. This is evidence of advances being made in the night rescue skills by the Air Corps crew. Anyone who saw the reports on television would have been aware that the ship was actually beached and the crew were never in any danger.
The Minister for Defence, the Minister for the Marine and I set up an interdepartmental committee comprising of officials of my Department, the Department of Defence and the Department of Tourism and Transport to examine and report on the development of search and rescue helicopters. While deliberating, we also took fully into account the report of the West Coast Search and Rescue Action Committee. I would like to pay tribute to the West Coast Search and Rescue Action Committee for their report and to thank them for their commitment, dedication and their initiation of public concern.
The Senator referred to the death of John Oglesby on board his motor fishing  vessel, the Neptune. A meeting in Killybegs last Easter resulted in further initiation of public concern. The chairperson of that committee has taken a particular interest in this and is with us tonight in the Public Gallery. I would like to thank her and her committee for their work in compiling the report.
The Irish Marine Search and Rescue Committee also advised us on the question of helicopter deployment, having studied the West Coast Search and Rescue Action Committee's report. The committee have put forward a number of options for improving search and rescue helicopter coverage on the west coast. The latest position is that the Government are urgently considering the various options presented by the committee. I am sure the House will appreciate my position of not being in a position to elaborate further.
With reference to the suitability of Knock Airport vis-à-vis Shannon Airport or, indeed, any other airport, the interdepartmental committee considered the suitability of various locations for deployment of search and rescue helicopters. Connaught Regional Airport at Knock was one of the locations considered. While, geographically it is the centre of the west coast, there are other factors which have to be taken into consideration — for example, secure hangars for helicopters are not available. Connaught Regional Airport at present has limited hours of operation, mainly daytime with occasional extensions, the tower is staffed only during the hours of operation of the airport, navigational equipment is not at the same level as at Shannon, there is no radar, VOR, VHF omni-directional radio range whereas Shannon has security, 24 hour lighting facilities, and MRCC. The meterological data at Connaught Regional Airport is rudimentary and is sometimes unavailable and forecasts and weather information for the casualty location must be obtained either from Dublin or Shannon. In Shannon 24 hour forecasts and weather reports are available at all times. This may cause difficulties when the Connaught tower is unmanned. I would like to assure the  Senator that all these factors have been considered. It is also a fact — not an opinion of mine — that Shannon has the lowest rate of diversion in Europe while there is quite a high rate of diversion in Knock.
The Senator referred to recent rescues and the events of last week, and I would also like to refer to them. These events have shown the extent to which Ireland as a nation on the edge of the Atlantic, which lies to the west, south and south-west of the country is exposed to the dangers of maritime threat. As one who comes from the north-west coast, I am only too well aware of the exposure on the west coast. Looking back over some 15 years, as far back as the disaster of the Evelyn Marie, followed by the Carrig Una, followed by the Skijford a number of individuals were lost on boats. There was also the Boy Shaun and the Creevy disasters and the one to which the Senator referred, the Neptune. There were many other cases in which there were casualties and where hospitalisation and medication should have been available immediately. As one who comes from an area which, like other parts of the coast, has suffered too many tragedies, I am more than anxious that we try to improve the position.
In relation to the Valentia tragedy, unfortunately three lives were lost on the Big Cat in Valentia Bay and that is a matter of great sadness. I commend the skill and bravery of the local members of my Department's coast life saving service who rescued 11 of the crew. They clambered along rocks on Beginish Island and hauled the crew men one by one from the wrecked vessel by breeches buoy. When the lifeboat could not get alongside the vessel in distress, the coxswain ferried the Valentia CLSS across to Beginish Island. I would like also to commend the bravery of the Valentia lifeboat crew in this instance. This co-operation between different agencies is a feature of good search-and-rescue practice. Here was an example of a successful mission achieved with the skilled use of relatively unsophisticated equipment when weather conditions made a direct helicopter rescue  impossible. It is unfortunate that we were not in a position to save all the crew.
I would like to point out in regard to the tremendous work of the CLSS, the helicopter arrived some two and a half hours after the ship foundered by which time the local life-saving service had rescued the men still on board. If it were not for the CLSS possibly more than three lives would have been lost.
In relation ot the Yarrawonga I must also praise the magnificent feat of those involved in the rescue of the crew of this bulk carrier. This particular rescue was among the most daring that I have seen and no amount of praise is adequate for the helicopter crews which participated in that exercise. The thing that is interesting in the light of the developments of the last week is the extent to which both national and international agencies become involved in rescue activities. This is an example of SAR knowing no boundaries. This is a reflection of the technical capability of the various maritime nations involved and of the range of technical equipment available to them. By pooling resources an enormous amount of work can be done and, if I may say so, the past week has been a testimony to the extent that co-operation, willingly given, can produce great results.
The exercise involving the monitoring of the Yarrawonga after its abandonment was also an exercise involving co-operation among a number of State agencies and the private sector. My Department were in consultation over the entire weekend with the Naval authorities and the Air Corps to ensure that a Naval vessel and an Air Corps helicopter; together with an Air Corps reconnaissance plane, were in a position to establish the position of the Yarrawonga. A combination of arrangements involving all these executive arms of the State resulted in the use of an Air Corps helicopter to ferry salvage personnel from the tug Typhoon to the Yarrawonga with two Naval personnel on board as well. These efforts ultimately resulted in the placing of a tow on board and from that moment on the whole outlook began to improve.
 While I must admit that the matter of major concern to me and to all of us was the saving of human life, Senators will not be surprised if I admit that the threat of pollution or of a wreck being washed up on our shores was also of grave concern to me. It was with great relief, therefore, that I saw the Yarrawonga taken in tow, escorted by our Naval vessel, out of our territorial waters. It has been outside our economic zone since 6 p.m. this evening. I do not want to try to score any points because this is a very serious matter but I would have to say that the action taken here is in sharp contrast with the action which was taken when we had a similar problem with the Kowloon Bridge. If the same action had been taken in that case we would not have had the difficulties that we had off the south coast.
In conclusion, I would like to record my concern to provide the best possible search-and-rescue service for Ireland, consistent with our resources, to give credit to the excellent service already provided by the agencies involved and to assure the Seanad that the Government will decide on improvements in this area  after proper and full consideration of the facts. Proposals are with Government and are under urgent consideration. They are considering the various options presented to them. I would like to repeat, lest one would think I am being evasive, that while these proposals are before Government it would be wrong of me to give any indication whatsoever regarding the matter. I hope the House, and in particular Senator Connor who raised this matter — I am very pleased to have the opportunity of replying — will appreciate that I am in an impossible position while these proposals are with Government and am not in a position to elaborate. I am fully aware of the problems and of what is necessary off the west coast and I hope there will be a response in the near future.
An Leas-Chathaoirleach An Leas-Chathaoirleach
An Leas-Chathaoirleach: The Chair would wish to join in the laudatory tributes, well and truly earned, to the rescue services in recent times.
The Seanad adjourned at 8.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 19 January 1989.
Seanad Éireann 121 Adjournment Matter. Air/Sea Rescue Services.