Published on November 22nd, 2016 | by Jim Lee


Calls for changes to legislation covering the Irish Coast Guard

On 8th November, Deputy Michael Collins, an Independent T.D. and a member of the Rural Alliance group, called on the Taoiseach to ensure that the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) is legislated as a standalone, primary response agency. In his contribution, he said that there were four primary response agencies in Ireland; “the fire service, the ambulance service, the Garda and the Irish Coast Guard” Obviously he does not see any role for the Defence Forces!

He went on; “The Irish Coast Guard is the only primary response agency that is not legislated for in the State. The Irish Coast Guard is the fourth blue light service and it needs to be a stand-alone, legislated, primary response agency. The current system within which it operates impedes the growth and progress of the service as decisions are being made by managers in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport who have no direct involvement with the emergency service. A stand-alone legislated, primary response agency would have a chain of command structure filled by qualified and experienced coast guard personnel as is the case in the other three legislated primary response agencies within the State”.


IRCG vehicle and RIB

Outlining their work he added; “The main role of the Irish Coast Guard is to rescue people from dangerous seas, inland waters, mountains and caves, to organise immediate medical assistance and transport and to assist boats and ships within the State’s jurisdiction. In any one year the Irish Coast Guard expects to handle around 2,500 maritime emergencies, assist approximately 4,500 people and save the lives of some 200 people. It will task coast guard helicopters on missions some 800 times, evacuate medical patients from the islands to hospitals on 100 occasions, assist other nations’ coast guard services approximately 200 times and make nearly 6,000 maritime safety broadcasts to shipping, fishing and leisure craft users. The coast guard’s role in our State cannot be underestimated. The crews of over 950 male and female volunteers are real life heroes. Currently, there are only three sector managers for the entire State. They have a combined job of managing all coastal units, which is a near impossible task. A minimum of another six sector manager positions and at least nine assistant sector manager positions need to be made available immediately in order to provide the support required and deserved by the coast guard volunteer coastal unit. In my own area in west Cork our coast guards in Goleen, Toe Head, Kinsale and Castletownbere are always ready to respond to calls, as are their colleagues throughout the State, to rescue cliff walkers, to search for missing persons or to assist in search operations, such as the infamous cocaine seizure in Dunlough Bay in west Cork in 2007”.

He said that the IRCG was “one of the most progressive search and rescue organisations in the world” adding; “This is in no small part due to the volunteer Coast Guard teams. They do this on a voluntary basis and are out there on average 10,000 man hours per year, 24-7, 365 days a year, putting their lives at risk to help others. The helicopter service which the Coast Guard provides for the State is among the most modern in the world and provides an invaluable service to the people of the country. We and they need legislation to ensure the successful future of this primary response agency”.

He concluded by asking that legislation be enacted as soon as possible “to protect the Coast Guard and ensure the future of the world class organisation which volunteers have worked so hard to develop”.

In response the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, said that nobody can disagree with the sentiment of what Deputy Collins was saying. He noted that the Civil Defence, mountain rescue teams, the RNLI and the Coast Guard service provide extraordinary benefits to the people. In particular he paid tribute to the “esteemed and valued member,” Caitríona Lucas, lost recently in County Clare. He added that there has been an extensive and expensive budget for the Coast Guard services over recent years, with a fleet of new Sikorsky helicopters and other facilities, including the upgrading of the station on Valentia Island and number of other stations.

In respect of the need for legislation, the Taoiseach said he spoke to some of the Coast Guard service recently and advised them “that in respect of the issues of concern to them they should submit their proposition to the Government and the Minister concerned”.


EI-ICG, Sikorsky S-92 of the IRCG

Noting that the service is very much valued by the people and that the Government “will continue to support it,” he concluded; “If we decide to legislate for a voluntary group we need to consider its implications very carefully. It is fair to say the Coast Guard service is very professional and operates to very high standards in terms of its training, its use of equipment, and the on-call situation it has as volunteers. Legislating for volunteers is certainly not an exact science. Deputy Collins can take it the Government and the Minister are very amenable to discussing these issues with the Coast Guard service”.

However on the 17th November, in response to a similar question from Deputy John Brassil, a Fianna Fáil T.D. representing Kerry, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Paschal Donohoe, said it was not proposed to provide further legislation for the IRCG. He added “given the enormously important role the Coast Guard fulfils in his county and constituency, the organisation has a very strong voluntary basis and ethos. We would have to take great care in legislating in the future for the organisation for fear of undermining that approach”.

The current legislative position in relation to the Irish Coast Guard

The Irish Marine Emergency Service (IMES) was established by Government Decision S. 21910 of 2nd August 1990, as a Division of the Department of the Marine. The name was later changed to the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG), in 2000 and the division was subsequently transferred to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in 2006.

The IRCG have a number of functions, which include, inter alia, Search and Rescue (SAR) and Maritime Pollution Prevention and Response. SAR functions are provided for in International Conventions promulgated by both the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), Ireland is a contracting State to both organisations.

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport is also empowered, through National and EU Legislation, to appoint authorised officers to carry out certain functions. In relation to Maritime Pollution, there is a suite of legislation, The Sea Pollution Acts 1991-2006, for example, has allowed the Minister to appoint officers of the IRCG, as authorised officers, to enable them to carry out their duties.

Further powers are provided for in The Merchant Shipping (Salvage and Wreck) Act 1993, whereby officers are authorised for the purposes of saving shipwrecked persons, a vessel in distress or the cargo or apparel of the vessel.

Additionally, European Communities (Vessel Traffic Monitoring and Information System) Regulations 2010, give the IRCG powers to act in relation to Places of Refuge incidents and the monitoring of hazardous ships.

Finally, Annexe 12 (Standards & Recommended Practices Search & Rescue) (Designation Of Authorities) Order, 1995, designated the Minister for Transport, Energy and Communications as the authority responsible for execution of powers under Annex 12 to the Chicago Convention, other than in relation to Aviation Rescue Co-ordination Centres and Rescue Co-ordination Sub-Centres, which are the responsibility of the Irish Aviation Authority. This search and rescue function, where it relates to aviation accidents at sea, is carried out on my behalf by the IRCG.


IRCG Sikorsky S-92 taxiing out at Shannon

Current organisation

The IRCG provides maritime Search and Rescue (SAR), through its three Rescue Co-ordination Centres and dedicated search and rescue units (SRUs). The three Rescue Co-ordination Centres provide 24/7 cover, with 12-16 watch keepers working in shifts, managed by a Divisional Controller. The Centres are located at the National Maritime Operations Centre (NMOC), in Dublin (Leeson Street), and two Maritime Rescue Sub-Centres, MRSC Valentia (Valentia Island, Co. Kerry) and MRSC Malin Head (Co. Donegal). NMOC provides marine search and rescue response services and coordinates the response to marine casualty incidents within the Irish Pollution Responsibility Zone/EEZ, while the MRSCs provide SAR response in their areas of responsibility. These are supported by an Engineering and Logistics Centre (Ballycollin, Dublin 11) and offices in Cork City and Castlebar, Co. Mayo.

SAR Operations are supported by ‘decision support systems’ including SarMap, OilMap and ChemMap, which provides incident management and recording; resource selection and alerting; logging and databases, predict the movement of drifting targets at sea; automated weather inputs and production of search areas and optimum search coverage plans for search units.

IRCG SRUs consist of five Sikorsky S-92A SAR helicopters and IRCG volunteer units. The volunteer units are equipped for coastline search; boat rescue using a variety of rescue craft; and for cliff rescue. Teams are located at 44 stationhouses manned by approximately 900 volunteers.

SRUs are also ‘declared’ to the Coast Guard from the RNLI, with which the Coast Guard has a very close working relationship.


IRCG helicopter parked outside the hanger at Dublin Airport

As is recommended practice worldwide, Search and Rescue in Ireland is built upon the Rescue Centres listening for and receiving distress messages, responding to and sending and co-ordinating SRUs to and at the scene of an incident. The IRCG depends on the SAR Helicopters, Coast Guard Volunteer Units and RNLI lifeboats to respond to vessels or persons in distress at sea.

The network of SRUs has been built up over many years and today provides an excellent network of response units to respond to persons in distress. The helicopter service is provided on a contract basis by operated by CHC Ireland. The current contract in place since 2012 is for ten years. The cost of that contract in 2016 is €59.6 million including VAT. Full details of the IRCG services can be found in this video.

Speaking in the Dáil on 15th November, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross said that the location, distribution and response service provided by IRCG assets, are kept under continuous review, with the view to development and improvement in the delivery of SAR services around the country. He added; “the Coast Guard are working to improve buildings around the coast and are currently introducing upgraded all-terrain vehicles and climbing unit vans. Additionally trials are taking place at present on new boats as part of a renewal process”. In conclusion, he said that there were, “no current plans to discontinue or downgrade any of the services provided around the coast”.

He also gave details on funding for the IRCG in 2014, 2015 and 2016.

                                                              2014                              2015                    2016

Current                                            €63,295,000                  €62,665,000        €65,855,000

Capital                                               €8,267,000                    €4,940,000          €4,600,000

It is also probably worth comparing these figures to expenditure on the Garda Air Support Unit (GASU), the Air Corps (Aircraft, Equipment & Support) and the Naval Service: Vessels (Equipment & Support), which are available for 2015 and 2016 as follows:-

                                                                                 2015                                            2016

Figures in 000s                                      Current     Capital          Total       Current     Capital        Total

GASU Aircraft                                         1,500       1,831          3,331        1,050               –        1,050

Air Corps (excluding personnel)           15,350          100        15,450      16,810       2,000      18,810

Naval Service (excluding personnel)      9,314     35,865        45,179        9,300     23,750      33,050

IRCG Helicopter callouts 2013 – November 2016

The Minister also gave details of the number of IRCG Helicopter callouts in 2013, 2014 and 2015 and to the 14th November 2016, as follows:-

Location                                   2013           2014           2015         2016 (to 14th Nov)

Shannon                                    290             311             334             248

Sligo                                           243             275             347             316

Dublin                                         131             140             151             108

Waterford                                  144             188             181             144

Some recent IRCG Helicopter callouts

The figures above although important, do not tell the full picture, in respect of IRCG Helicopter callouts. Various types of missions are involved and the following are some recent examples.

On the night of the 16th/17th November, ‘Rescue 117’, the Waterford based helicopter, carried out a mission to carry a patient that required an organ transplant to the UK. MRCC Dublin coordinated the mission, working with the National Aeromedical Coordination Centre (NACC). Earlier that day (16th), MRCC Dublin was also involved in coordinating a search for a missing fisherman off Arklow, IRCG Helicopters along with RNLI Lifeboats and fishing vessels took part in the search of the area. It’s understood that the man was in his late 40s or early 50s and was part of a crew of three on a local fishing vessel. The man fell overboard around 09.30. The search resumed on the 17th with the Arklow, Wicklow and Rosslare RNLI lifeboats, as well as the L.E. Orla and several local fishing vessels.


IRCG Command Vehicle

On the 14th November, the Malin Head Coastguard conducted a search and rescue operation after a fishing vessel got into difficulty off the coast of Fanad Head and started taking in water. The Lough Swilly Lifeboat was launched, assisted by the Sligo based helicopter, ‘Rescue 118’. A pump was transferred onto the vessel and it was then escorted back to shore with all three crew members escaping uninjured.

On 7th November, five people were rescued from a ledge on the Kerry coast, having becoming stranded on the shoreline, at Leck Point north of Ballybunion, at around 16:00. The volunteer Ballybunion Rescue unit attempted to reach the five, but were unable to do so. RNLI lifeboats from Kilrush in Clare and Fenit Co Kerry were sent to the scene. The Shannon-based helicopter ‘Rescue 115’ was tasked to the area from Galway, where it had been on another mission. ‘Rescue 117’, based at Waterford Airport, was also alerted and requested to assist. The crew of ‘Rescue 115’ airlifted each casualty from the ledge, and dropped them in a safe location above the cliff, and were then stood down.

Finally on 1st November, ‘Rescue 115’ from Shannon carried out a Medevac from a Spanish fishing vessel, 108 Nautical Miles west of Loop Head. Valentia MRSC coordinated the mission, which resulted in the crewman, being successfully landed at Hospital ashore.

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About the Author

Jim has had a life-long interest in military matters and aviation. Initially, he fused both of these interests together with a passion for military aviation, initially as a photographer. He has travelled extensively over the years and has been the guest of many European air forces, plus the air forces of the United States, Russia and others throughout the world. His first introduction to journalism coincided with an interest in the civil aviation industry was when he initially wrote for and later edited, ‘Aviation Ireland’, the club magazine of the Aviation Society of Ireland. Jim was a contributor to Flying in Ireland since its inception over 10 years ago and is now a key contributor to this site. He has also contributed items for a number of other aviation magazines and has produced a number of detailed contributions to Government policy documents, most recently the Irish Government’s White Paper on Defence. He is also deeply involved in the local community and voluntary sector and has worked both in local government and central government.

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