The HSE is looking for a new emergency air ambulance provider because the Air Corps and Coast Guard cannot transfer sick patients or donor organs at night.
Emergency air ambulance services and transfers between hospitals inside and outside of Ireland are usually provided by the Irish Air Corps and the Irish Coast Guard under existing arrangements. However, both the Air Corps and the Irish Coast Guard are unable to provide emergency air ambulance services at night between 7pm and 7.30am.
Under a new arrangement, the HSE is set to spend up to €16m over two years on an emergency air ambulance provider which can operate when the Air Corps and Coast Guard are unavailable to transfer patients. Tender documents say the new suppliers' aircraft "may also be required from time to time on a similar emergency basis to transport organ retrieval teams from one hospital to another".
The service is required from June 2021 for two years but may be extended for another two years. Suppliers must be able to provide their own aircraft, staff and equipment, according to the tender documents. They say the service is needed because of constraints in the Irish Air Corps and the Coast Guard.
The Air Corps has been struggling to sustain its operations because of a shortage of qualified staff, such as pilots and technicians. Figures show more than 800 personnel were discharged from Army, Naval Service and Air Corps last year. This has increased steadily year-on-year since 2013 when 473 people left.
A Defence Forces spokeswoman said the Air Corps is currently unable to provide an emergency air ambulance service at night due to these manpower constraints and the availability of aircraft.
She added that a number of schemes have helped address these manpower issues over the past 12 months.
"In addition, the recent introduction into service of four new Pilatus PC12NG aircraft and the pending delivery of two Airbus C295 aircraft in the medium term will allow a significant increase in the capability provided by the Irish Air Corps."
A Coast Guard spokeswoman said there are no restrictions on helicopter-based search and rescue operations at night because its crews operate on 24-hour shifts that commence at 1pm each day.
She said it provides patient transfer services to the HSE on request depending on availability, but international patient transfer operations are subject to commercial air transport (CAT) regulations prescribing mandatory rest periods for crews. Such requirements do not apply to crews when operating on the search and rescue missions they typically carry out.
"To that end CAT flights are not flown between the hours of 11pm and 7.30am. Accordingly the Coast Guard does not provide international patient transfer services from 7pm as travel time to and from UK has to be factored in," she added.