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Coast Guard 'may struggle to help in sea emergencies'

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Coast Guard says staff need extra funding. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Coast Guard says staff need extra funding. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Coast Guard says staff need extra funding. Photo: Steve Humphreys

The Coast Guard does not have the capacity to respond to major accidents at sea, including oil spills, a fire on a ferry or a Costa Concordia-type incident in Irish waters.

An internal Coast Guard document obtained by the Sunday Independent show officials raised concerns about critical high and medium risks posed to the country by shortcomings and a lack of resources.

The document, sent to Transport Minister Shane Ross last year, warns there is a risk of lives being lost and "environmental, economic, social and political damage" as a result of potential failures.

It said "insufficient capacity within the Coast Guard" means there is a high risk it could not "respond effectively and safely to a major event". It lists these events as including a "mass casualty incident such as fire, capsize or grounding of a ferry or cruise liner"; the release or spillage of radioactive, hazardous or noxious materials in Irish waters during shipping; a major climatic event and an incident on an oil or gas rig. Officials said there was a need to develop and complete a new mass rescue plan.

Elsewhere, the document says the development of such a plan would mitigate further risks posed by failing to coordinate with other agencies in an emergency such as a plane coming stuck in mudflats near Shannon airport.

The airport is located close to the Shannon estuary and is surrounded by hundreds of acres of mudflats at low tide. Concerns have been raised about access if an incident occurred, which would need a land and sea response.

Concerns are expressed about Ireland's international reputation being harmed by failing to meet its obligations to deal with a major incident.

The possibility of losing the national search and rescue helicopters could impact any future service and result in lives being lost, the document also states. Helicopter search and rescue services are operated by a private company, CHC Ireland, under a €500m State contract.

However, the Coast Guard business plan warns that industrial action at the company or CHC being forced to close could lead to a loss of service. It was recommended that the Department of Transport conduct annual audits of helicopter operations.

Officials also called for training programmes to be reviewed and a national oil spill plan be put in place.

A spokeswoman for the department said a new national search and rescue plan provides for comprehensive responses to emergencies and minimum requirements are in place "in relation to safety management and oversight".

A new volunteer management information system has been developed and the minister is due to publish a contingency plan for managing spills of oil and dangerous substances during transport, she added.

"The risks outlined in the 2019 Business Plan are a normal element of business planning where potential threats or blockages to the delivery of particular objectives are identified, mitigated and managed insofar as possible."

Sunday Independent