Seanad Éireann - Volume 188 - 27 February, 2008

Coast Guard Stations: Statements.

  Deputy Michael Ahern: I am very pleased to have this opportunity to speak on behalf of my colleague, Deputy Noel Dempsey, the Minister for Transport, on the subject of Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations. It would be useful if I outlined the context within which these centres operate and gave some of the background to the current state of play.

The organisation responsible for marine emergency management, MEM, in Ireland is the Irish Coast Guard, which is a part of the Department of Transport. Marine emergency management includes search and rescue, SAR, marine pollution, casualty and salvage preparedness and response and safety awareness. This 24 hours per day, seven days per week emergency response is carried out in co-operation with other Depart[1289]ments, charities and voluntary organisations dedicated to SAR.

The Coast Guard’s areas of responsibility are the Ireland search and rescue region, the Irish pollution response zone, inland waters, mountains and caves, cliffs of Ireland and offshore islands. It has some 80 full-time staff and over 1,000 volunteers.

There are 55 Irish Coast Guard coastal units operated by volunteers both male and female, strategically located around the coast and inland waters. These units have full 24 hours per days, seven days per week capabilities and range of equipment and vehicles depending on the marine risks in their areas of operation.

The Coast Guard also has helicopter coverage which is provided under contract with the private sector company Canadian Helicopter Corporation (Ireland) Limited. The company supplies six helicopters, equipment and crew for four bases at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo airports. The Coast Guard helicopters can travel up to 200 miles out to sea and rescue up to 14 people. In similarity with the other services provided by the Coast Guard, the helicopters are available 24 hours per day, seven days per week and 365 days per year at 15 minutes notice during the daytime and 45 minutes notice during the night-time.

Whatever combination of resources is used, rescue operations are often carried out in the most extreme conditions and inclement weather. The personnel involved work in extremely difficult situations and stressful conditions and that fact is acknowledged by the State.

Emergencies occurring in the Irish maritime search and rescue region have been co-ordinated from the marine rescue co-ordination centre, MRCC, in Dublin since the early 1990s and before that from MRCC Shannon. Prior to 2001, both Malin Head and Valentia were commercial coast radio stations whose principal responsibility was to carry out ship-to-shore links to shipping, issue weather forecasts and navigational warnings and logging fishing reports. Search and rescue co-ordination was delegated to Malin Head and Valentia from MRCC Dublin in 2001.

There may be some confusion between the work done in co-ordination centres and that undertaken by local volunteers. The location of a co-ordination centre and local knowledge are not entirely linked as the principal element of local knowledge is from the local Coast Guard coastal units and lifeboat crews strategically positioned around our coast. Their local knowledge of tides, currents, bays and local historical incident locations is invaluable to the watch officers of the Coast Guard.

I put on record again my appreciation and that of the Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, of the selfless voluntary efforts of the Coast Guard, RNLI Lifeboat and community rescue boat crews in rescuing those in trouble on our coasts, cliffs and offshore islands. We are also indebted to a [1290]wide range of organisations, both public and private, that make their facilities available to the Coast Guard on a 24 hour basis or who have operational or liaison agreements with the Coast Guard.

When an incident occurs, emergency calls are routed to a Coast Guard co-ordination centre and the operations of the different agencies are co-ordinated from the centre. Clearly, the communication system on which these centres rely is the backbone infrastructure on which Coast Guard operations depend. It is essential that it is of high quality, efficient, effective and that it provides value for money.

With regard to the overall maritime safety structure, which I have outlined, it is the intention of the Minister that the Irish Coast Guard and maritime administration will be strengthened to meet the needs of this country well in the 21st century. In that context the Minister is concerned at the state of the present equipment and has confirmed that investment in a new integrated communications system equipment should proceed as quickly as possible. There has been some delay in recent years in proceeding with this upgrade due to uncertainty about the number and nature of centres to be provided for and where they should be located. It is considered that neither Malin Head nor Valentia MRSC is designed to accommodate a world-class maritime rescue service as they are currently constructed. Each centre has evolved with piecemeal modernisation over the last century and is in need of major investment.

The issue of the number of centres was raised in a 2002 Deloitte and Touche Irish Coast Guard study. This report has provided a backdrop to ongoing improvements and developments in the Coast Guard in the past six years. The consultants, having regard to international best practice and value for money, made more than 100 recommendations in respect of the future development of the service. The recommendations concern IRCG functions, structure and operations. A number of recommendations are strategic in nature and — critically for the issue being considered by the House — include reducing the number of rescue co-ordination centres from three to two enhanced facilities.

It might be useful to recall that the most economical option identified by the consultants was one co-ordination centre to operate the system for the entire country, with a reserve centre nearby which could be activated quickly if the main centre was out of commission and which would double also as a training facility. Its benefits to staff included improved availability for advanced training and development, personnel availability in the event of major emergencies or in times of severe staff shortages, for example, during a flu epidemic, reduced travel times, subsistence, overtime and other costs, redeployment opportunities, continuous senior management availability to all staff and improved career [1291]opportunities. However, the need for strengthened resilience in the event of a severe localised incident which could make a single centre and its nearby reserve centre inoperable led to the focus on a two-centre operation, with an emphasis on retaining as many of the one-centre benefits as possible. Critically, it is important to stress that the consultants were silent on the issue of where the two centres should be located.

A proposal to close any one of the three centres, no matter how well-intentioned and regardless of the ultimate benefits, was going to cause controversy. Over the years three possibilities have been put forward. The first was to close the Dublin centre, while the second was to close either the Malin or Valentia centres. The most recent proposal would involve relocating all three but would result in one centre, along with the Coast Guard and maritime administration headquarters, being put in on the east coast and another on the west coast. A two-centre operation, geographically separated, is envisaged. Each centre will be equipped and manned in such a way that if one ceases to operate, the other will be in a position to assume control of the maritime emergency management of Ireland for the required period.

Any of these options give rise to difficulties as well as advantages. However, the most controversial aspect revolves around the question of where to locate the centre on the west coast. The Minister considers that the site on the west coast should be in a technically robust location, well served by transport and infrastructure, and also should be situated where all staff can live within close proximity to enable them to be called on in an emergency. He has not finalised where that location should be. The review of locations is under way and I understand the possibilities have been narrowed down to three sites in the Limerick-Shannon area and those at Malin and Valentia. Should a decision be made to transfer operations from Malin or Valentia, the possibility of keeping existing staff running combined radio watches from their existing stations is also under evaluation to utilise fully the professional knowledge of current staff while not asking them to move.

At the heart of this debate is a view that existing locations are not ideal for co-ordination centres. Whatever happens, change is inevitable. I can understand the motivation behind the Irish Coast Guard exploring whether a new location would provide better and more efficient service to those at risk at sea. Any such move would also have an adverse impact on local communities, however, which should be taken into account before a final decision is reached. The Minister made it clear that his final decision will also take account of the safety needs of local communities, the ongoing improvement of the service to the public and the concerns of individual staff members.

[1292]I wish to make a number of other points which I hope will be of assistance. Regardless of the option selected, there is likely to be need for construction work to be carried out. In their current state, neither MRSC can properly accommodate the requirements of a modern, integrated national SAR function and prepare for the future without considerable building modifications being made. As both existing sites are co-located with earth mats, the amount of room available for building is limited. At Malin Head, this could entail a new building along the roadway and the demolition of existing structures. At Valentia, it is likely to involve an extension to the operations room out over and beneath the current car park, installation of new working positions within the operations room, new offices, recabling of the building, the relocation of existing equipment and refurbishment and extension of the equipment room.

I am also aware that there have been ongoing concerns in ensuring power and communications resilience at both Malin Head and Valentia. This point has been the subject of much debate and criticism. I understand the ESB and Eircom have been requested to give an indication of what would be required to remedy any problems. However, a survey report within the Irish Coast Guard indicated that there were significant differences in the electrical supply events recorded by the uninterrupted power supply, UPS, systems. The UPS automatically switches to battery back-up power when it detects a change in the normal supply where high or low-voltage tolerances are exceeded.

The Irish Coast Guard operates the same UPS product at all MRCC-MRSCs and at the automatic identification system main server room located in Blanchardstown, Dublin. In the period during which the UPS system was installed at all these locations, there were 119 unaccounted for events at Valentia over 16 months. This compares with 14 events at the MRCC in Dublin over 18 months. A similar significant variation was recorded for Malin Head. Back-up generators are available at both locations but it is not considered desirable that sensitive equipment and a resilient communications structure should be reliant on and exposed to such fluctuations. As already stated, this information has been passed to the ESB which has been asked to comment on this situation and propose a solution for both Valentia and Malin Head. There is a particular need to do so in Kerry where there is exposure to sustained power interruption on the single-line supply from Killorglin.

The Valentia MRSC has suffered three known major communications faults, affecting multiple or all circuits between the MRSC and radio sites, since 1 November 2006. These outages occurred on 15 November 2006, 8 and 9 February 2007 and 2 December 2007. The most recent is attributed to faulty Eircom equipment within the Valentia MRSC. The February 2007 incident was the result [1293]of an optical fibre being dug up Caherciveen. The MRCC in Dublin also suffered one such Eircom interruption in December 2007 owing to a combination of planned upgrade works and a fault occurring on a protected ring where additional circuits not tagged as relating to the Coast Guard were impacted upon.

The Irish Coast Guard requires point-to-point, hard-wired communications with its masts. As a result, simple access to the network is not sufficient and duplicate access to the Eircom ring main is required. Again, Eircom has been asked to draw up proposals to improve resilience at both Malin Head and Valentia.

Recent decisions have been taken to prepare the Irish Coast Guard for future development and optimal configuration of co-ordination centres while ensuring the detailed technical knowledge and experience of watch officers is retained and fully utilised. I reiterate on behalf of the Minister that officers will not be forced to move or lose their jobs. Any transition arrangements for new centres will be introduced on a phased basis and will be negotiated with staff to ensure there is no loss of expertise.

With regard to the east coast location, Irish Coast Guard senior operational staff must have daily access to MRCC facilities to deal with incidents and intervention. This is vital in times of major crises and was evidenced last week when senior operational staff of the Irish Coast Guard intervened and exercised powers of intervention under the Sea Pollution Act 1991 during the MV Horncliff and MV Acacia incidents. Both incidents had the potential to inflict major environmental damage on our coastline. The Minister has arranged that the Deloitte & Touche report on the Irish Coast Guard and the submission to him on which recent decisions were based be published on the Department’s website at www.transport.ie.

My final comments relate to the fact that the restructuring of the Irish Coast Guard currently in train is aimed at improving the overall quality and efficiency of a key public service. Members will be aware that on budget day, the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance asked that each Department undertake an efficiency review of expenditure. These reviews are required specifically to consider possible inefficiencies due to the multiplicity of boards and agencies, the need for better sharing of certain services and efficiencies in management, travel and consumables in general. The Department of Transport is in the process of evaluating options and this includes examining the similarities in service provision in the Department and its agencies, particularly in the area of safety, to consider whether there are duplicating or overlapping functions which could be more efficiently delivered through the amalgamation, abolition or reduction in the number of bodies or the pooling of services. The position of Coast Guard services is being considered in that context and with the benefit of the many comments that [1294]the Minister has received since the restructuring proposal was announced. The Minister has met both Government and Opposition representatives and members of the local community to discuss the issue.

The Minister has specifically asked me to assure the House that all the views expressed and made this afternoon will be taken into account before a west coast location is determined.