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Published on January 7th, 2016 | by FII Reader

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End of year Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) statistics show record SAR helicopter missions

End of year statistics published by the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) on 31st December, show record responses by the IRCG’s helicopters, delivered on contract by global helicopter operator, CHC Helicopter. CHC Helicopter’s general operations manager for search-and-rescue (SAR) services, Chris Hodson, said that CHC operates one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated SAR networks. The company has a fleet of more than 220 aircraft and operates on six continents.

“We’ve improved the efficiency of our engineering processes and our team,” said Mr. Hodson. ”In Shannon, for instance, major maintenance inspections are now completed in half the time, meaning that our helicopters can spend more time in the air serving the people who depend on us.”

In total, the IRCG’s four helicopter bases at Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford, which operate 24/7 365 day per year, completed over 1,000 missions, using a fleet of fleet of five Sikorsky S-92 helicopters, registered EI-ICG, EI-ICU, EI-ICA, EI-ICR, EI-ICD. Each of the bases has one helicopter with a back-up aircraft being rotated between bases as required.

Irish SAR 3

Approximately 15% of all missions are flown at night. The fleet are equipped with enhanced mission equipment, including forward-looking infrared (FLIR) low-light cameras, ‘night sun’ searchlights and satellite communications systems.

The crew from the Shannon base which completed the 1,000th mission was Daithi O’Cearbhallain, Sean Murphy, Benny Meehan, Rob Goodbody, Bill Chambers and Joe Molloy. This was for the first time that figure was reached since the helicopter service started in 1991.

The landmark total was reached on 26th December, when Shannon based ‘Rescue 115’ and the Sligo based ‘Rescue 118’ helicopters completed the milestone missions, meaning that both bases flew over 330 missions each. Many of the missions were carried out in challenging weather conditions, at night and deep into the Atlantic. To cater for these conditions, the helicopter fleet is equipped with enhanced mission equipment, including forward-looking infrared (FLIR) low-light cameras, ‘night sun’ searchlights and satellite communications systems.

Confirming the figures, IRCG’s national manager for search-and-rescue (SAR) services, Gerard O’Flynn, said that as of 27th December, the Shannon Rescue 115 has completed 330 missions, Dublin Rescue 116: 148 missions, Waterford Rescue 117: 179 missions, and Sligo Rescue 118: 343 missions surpassing the 2014 total of 914 missions.

“Our helicopter SAR crews are highly trained and dedicated to serving the people in their communities,” said Mr. O’Flynn. “Their professionalism and dedication, as well as high aircraft availability, allows our crews to return people home safely from an even greater number of dangerous situations.”

Chris Reynolds, Director of the Irish Coast Guard, said he was thankful for the professionalism and dedication of the crews.

“I want to thank the crews at Shannon, Dublin, Waterford and Sligo for their fantastic work throughout the year, moving people from places of danger to places of safety, day and night, winter and summer. High aircraft availability is one of the main reasons behind the high number of missions. This year we achieved in excess of 96% 24/7 operational availability at 15 minutes’ notice (0730 to 2130) and 45 minutes’ notice thereafter at all our four Bases which is an exceptional achievement. The Coast Guard operates one of the world’s most sophisticated SAR services in the world. We are very proud of the service that is delivered by a very special team of men and women dedicated to saving life anywhere in Ireland and in all weathers.

IRCG 1While the overall objective of the IRCG is to reduce the loss of life on Ireland’s sea’s, lakes, waterways and rivers, coastal and remote areas, it also provides support on request to statutory bodies or agencies, such as the Health Service Executive (HSE) particularly in emergency response situations. During 2015, they provided assistance to the HSE ambulance service on 514 occasions; a 50% increase over 2014. Additional to that figure Coast Guard helicopters carried out 170 medevacs off the Islands, which is a 23% increase. This island service is an important part in providing a sustainable quality of life for islanders, off our west coast. In this regard the crew based on the west coast had a particularly busy year, assisting the National Ambulance Service to transport critically ill or injured patients from rural areas to the major trauma centres at Cork and Galway University Hospitals. The IRCG expect this helicopter emergency medical service level to be maintained, at between 10% and 15% of all missions, in 2016.

The achievement of the 1,000 mission milestone should be seen in the context of the IRCG’s helicopter mission target of around 800 annually, both day and night. In 2003 for example a breakdown of the missions flown by day and by night from the four bases was as follows:-

                                                  Day      Night          Total

Dublin                                         118          13             131

Shannon                                    233          57             290

Waterford                                  133          11             144

Sligo                                           201          42             243

Totals                                         685        123             808

This annual target includes around 40 missions to assist mountain rescues and some 150 mission to carry out aeromedical HEMS missions on behalf of the HSE, particularly with medevacs of patients suffering from strokes and STEMIS (ST Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction), for which the helicopters are equipped with ambulance level paramedic care facilities.

Overall IRCG response in 2015

Including the helicopter missions, the IRCG responded to 2,657 incidents up to 30th of December, which is up 1% on 2014 (2,628), which had been the busiest year since 1991.

The IRCG believes that the rise in the number of incidents indicates that more people are taking part in water based activities or outdoor pursuits, as well as increased tourism during the Summer, It also shows a greater willingness of the community to seek assistance early, which is to be welcomed. They encourage people to call 112 when they think they’re in trouble. Waiting until you are actually in trouble it might be too late. With the change in weather, they expect to see a change in the calls and a change in conditions. However its message remains the same. “If you do see someone in difficulty in the sea, on the shore, cliffs, lakes or rivers dial 112 or 999 and ask for the Coast Guard”.

Looking at these incidents in some detail shows that those involving powered pleasure craft were down 20% at 194, Merchant vessel incidents at 52 showed a 25% fall, there were 221 assists to sailing craft; a 4% increase while fishing vessels incidents were down 1% at 185 which were mainly tows ins for engine failure. There were also 26 incidents involving aircraft; a 37% increase.

The most significant rise has been assisting persons who got into difficulty on the shoreline, sometimes being swept into the sea by breaking waves. At 306 this is up 10% on last year. Mountain rescue accounted for 78 incidents and incidents on rivers and lakes show a 61% increase at 208. Some of this increase on rivers is accounted for by closer cooperation with fire authorities in Dublin, Cork and Limerick.

Another feature of the last number of years is the growing assistance given to An Garda Síochána in missing person searches in coastal and remote areas. The 232 missions in 2015 represented a 5% rise.

Hoax calls have fallen by 58% but nuisance calls have risen 10% to 2,549. Persons assisted at 3,609 were down 10% whilst lives saved at 290 are up 12%.

Overall the total incidents involved 75 bodies’ recoveries. Of the 28 fatalities encountered during missions in 2015 8 were of persons off the shoreline, two on mountain rescue calls, six in rivers and lakes, one in an aircraft accident, one in the UK area and 10 when assisting An Garda Síochána.

Mr. Reynolds also thanked all Coast Guard staff and volunteers who responded throughout the year. The volunteer units were called out 1,290 times (up 2 %), the RNLI lifeboat was tasked 836 times (2% rise) and Community Rescue Boats 219 times (up 4%). There were also 24 minor pollution incidents managed. IRCG co-ordination centres also broadcast 71,300 marine safety messages a rise of 15% and received 31,700 vessel traffic reports. The increased number of traffic reports logged particularly by small fishing and leisure vessels is very welcome and the IRCG encourages anyone taking to sea to log a traffic report (in effect a ‘sail plan’) with them. All boat users should also tell a responsible person ashore – in effect an emergency contact – where their craft is going, when its leaving, time due back and where, who is on-board and most importantly what action to take when this estimated time of arrival back passes.

In addition, as the IRCG as Chair of the National Coordinating Committee for Mountain and Cave Rescue is responsible for administering payment of grants to all the mountain rescue teams in Ireland. In the years 2011-2014 this grant funding scheme has provided €362,957 to mountain rescue teams as detailed in the table below.

IRCG Mountain rescue grant statistics
Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) investigating winching incident

The IRCG and its contracted helicopter operator, CHC Helicopter, have been responsible for saving countless lives in very difficult circumstances. However, illustrating the very serious risks involved with these types of missions was a winching incident that occurred during a rescue and recovery operation off Hook Head, Co. Wexford, on 6th December.


IRCG

The Waterford-based helicopter ‘Rescue 117’ was tasked to attend, when the group of four teenagers, who were part of the 55th South Circular Road scout group based in Dublin, were swept off rocks near Hook Head, during a heavy swell in the aftermath of Storm Desmond, at around 14:00 that afternoon. Two of the four had managed to reach shore, but two others, a 15-year-old boy and a 14 year old girl remained in the water in horrific weather conditions, The girl, subsequently named as Aoife Winterlich, was reported as being unconscious and floating head down in the water when the helicopter arrived on the scene, and was being kept afloat by the boy. Normally in such a situation, those in the water would normally be rescued one by one by the helicopter’s winchman, working with a winch operator from the helicopter hovering above. However with the boy in danger of being swept into rocks and the girl unconscious and unable to respond, the winchman elected to lift both teenagers together in an extremely difficult manoeuvre. Tragically, during the lift, the girl slipped from the rescue ‘strop’, as they were being recovered into the helicopter. Reports vary on whether the young girl fell 15 feet or 30 feet back into the water, but as soon as the boy was secured by the winch operator, she was recovered almost immediately. She was given medical assistance on board the aircraft, as the winching crews are trained paramedics. The two teens were flown to Waterford University Hospital, where she was described as being in a critical condition, while the boy was described as stable. The entire rescue operation is understood to have been completed in 17 minutes from time of callout. In spite of these efforts the girl who was transferred to Crumlin Hospital, subsequently lost her flight for life on 10th December.

In the immediate aftermath of the incident the IRCG conducted a preliminary review, which found the winch team had no option, but to lift both teenagers simultaneously, in an extremely challenging manoeuvre, due to the proximity of both to the rocks. They subsequently notified the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU), who announced on 9th December, that it had formally initiated an investigation, and would investigate the circumstances related specifically to the air rescue and recovery operation.

They have asked that if any member of the public had video or camera footage relating to the rescue and recovery operation persons to contact the AAIU at info@aaiu.ie.

The Investigation is on-going, and as is normal in such circumstances, a report will be issued in due course.

Words by Michael Whelan, photos courtesy of ICG.

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