Cuts to rescue helicopter service 'put lives at risk'
LIVES will be put at risk by helicopter search and rescue cutbacks in the south-east, a draft government memo has admitted.
The plan to cut helicopter cover for the region from 24 hours to 12 hours by 2013 has sparked furious protests and prompted new Wexford-based Junior Minister Sean Connick -- who has responsibility for fisheries -- to publicly clash with Transport Minister Noel Dempsey.
The Irish Independent has learned that a draft memo to Government, drawn up by the Department of Transport in January, acknowledged the risks of having no helicopter cover in the region from 9.30pm to 9.30am. It said there could be a 40-minute delay in getting helicopter cover from the 24-hour rescue helicopter bases in Sligo, Shannon and Dublin.
The memo concedes that not all people at risk of drowning off the south-east coast will be rescued within the so-called 'golden hour', when medical treatment is required to give the best chance of survival.
It states that at least 93pc of people who require the helicopter rescue service will be reached within the hour, adding: "This should overcome most local objections."
But Waterford-based Fine Gael Senator Paudie Coffey asked what would happen to the 7pc who could not be rescued within an hour, asking "Are they saying these people can die at sea? It's frightening."
In the past four years, 64 people have been saved by helicopter off the south-east coast at night. If 7pc of these people were not reached within an hour, that would equate to four people whose lives might have been put at risk by a daylight-only service.
Mr Coffey pointed to tragedies off the south Wexford Coast including the sinking of the 'Maggie B' in 2006, with two crew members drowned; the 'Honeydew II' in 2006, with two crew members drowned; and the 'Pere Charles' in 2007, with five crew members drowned.
And he said the cost of the new 10-year contract with CHC Helicopter Corporation would be €50m per year compared to €27m per year for the existing contract with the same company, which expires in 2013.
"That is €500m over 10 years for what is essentially a diminished service," he said.
It is not known if the draft government memo was shown to Mr Dempsey, who is overseeing the process of signing the new contract.
Further details are also emerging about the helicopters to be used in the contract, which Mr Dempsey said would be new, 50pc faster than the current ones and "will be able to fly at night and in clouds, unlike the current situation".
Mr Coffey said the existing Sikorsky S-61 helicopters could already fly at night and through the clouds.
He said just one of the Sikorsky S-92 helicopters being used in the new contract would be new, while the remaining four would be second-hand.
It is understood the Department of Transport is planning to lease rather than purchase the helicopters and provide them to the private contractor to use.
Mr Coffey called on Mr Dempsey to carry out a feasibility study, meanwhile, to see if the Irish Air Corps could use its six Augusta AW-139 helicopters (purchased at a cost of €100m) to provide additional air cover from Baldonnell Aerodrome in Dublin, and thereby free up resources for the south-east cost.
Around 24,000 people have already signed up to a Facebook campaign against the planned cutbacks and an online petition has already gathered 6,700 signatures.
The Department of Transport last night said it had no comment to make when contacted about the draft memo drawn up by its officials.