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Wednesday 16 January 2019

Coast Guard cannot cope with SOS calls at sea

Government warned of struggle to manage multiple distress signals as staff are put at risk

(Stock photo)
(Stock photo)
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

Major failings within the Irish Coast Guard mean it is unable to deal with an incident where multiple people are reported in distress at sea.

New internal documents seen by the Sunday Independent show the Coast Guard is chronically under-staffed and the personnel shortage is exposing volunteer units to risk because they cannot be supported by full-time staff.

This is having a detrimental impact on services and could cost the Government millions in the event of a major incident at sea, one document warns.

Officials within the Coast Guard and the Department of Transport are concerned about chronic failures to meet legislative requirements.

These concerns about the Coast Guard's performance were first raised publicly 12 months ago but the new documents show there has been no improvement within the organisation since.

Reports submitted by the Coast Guard to the Department of Transport warn there are insufficient plans, structures and staff in place to deal with "an above average incident where multiple persons [are] in distress at sea".

There is also an inability to deal with ship casualties and a major pollution incident.

A source told the Sunday Independent that any mishap involving car and passenger ferries similar to those operating between Galway and the Aran Islands would be considered an above average incident. Full-time Coast Guard staff would not be in a position to be at the scene of an event at such sites for up to four hours, the source added.

Volunteers and part-time staff are in positions to respond to an emergency but there are concerns about the ability of full-time personnel to offer support to responders during the critical early stages of an incident.

Documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act show a serious lack of resources within the organisation. The Coast Guard's most recent workforce plan, submitted to management in the Department of Transport, highlights 23 additional roles that need to be filled or created.

It said this would help it respond better to emergencies and manage risks. It specifically points to gaps in the number of coastal unit sector managers, health and safety officers and pollution response experts. Senior and middle-ranking managers are also needed to support search and rescue responses, training programmes, quality assurance and emergency planning.

"Serious HR gaps exist in mounting and maintaining a sustained national response to any medium or high category marine emergency incident, ie search and rescue, ship casualty or pollution incident," says the document.

"The Irish Coast Guard is chronically under-staffed. Restrictions on recruitment of staff to the Coast Guard has had a detrimental impact on delivery of services, leaving the Irish Coast Guard, and hence the State, exposed to some risks."

It warns that any failures to manage a serious pollution incident, such as major oil spills from a tanker, would come at a huge cost to Government.

"By not having requisite response organisation in place, in the event of an incident, international insurance bodies and conventions will not pay out for damage as a result of the accident but [it] will be left for the national Government to pay."

The document highlights a number of "mission critical" positions and said filling the 23 additional roles will help to ensure safer use of Irish waters.

Further documents show that rescue co-ordination centres are heavily reliant on overtime shifts to keep services operational. There are not enough watch officers to cover current rostering arrangements and the organisation is heavily reliant on officers doing extra shifts to cover watches.

"As well as not having a full complement of staff on a particular shift, with the resultant impact on the watch performance, the demand on overtime is considered excessive in terms of work-life balance, health and well-being of watch officers on a permanent shift and watch-keeping fatigue," states one document.

Another warns emergency plans and training programmes need to be overhauled.

Sunday Independent

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