New garda units, created in the wake of the Abbeylara inquiry, will be sent out on to the streets from today.
The concept of a local unit to respond to a critical incident involving firearms or the taking of a hostage was devised by a garda review group following criticism of the tactics deployed by the force during the Abbeylara stand-off, which resulted in the death of John Carthy.
The regional support units (RSU) will be deployed by local commanders to react to major incidents rather than waiting for the Dublin-based Emergency Response Unit.
They will be fully operational in all five regions outside Dublin from the end of next year.
And the first unit, covering the southern region, was launched yesterday at the Garda College in Templemore, and will be deployed initially on the streets of Limerick and Cork.
They will operate on a pilot basis with regular reviews to improve the concept.
In Limerick, it is expected that the RSU will be deployed to back up local armed units patrolling areas where feuding has flared in the past. It will replace ERU personnel sent there temporarily in the past.
Each RSU will have an initial strength of 24 officers, including supervisors; but Assistant Garda Commissioner Nacie Rice, who is in charge of the review, says the strength can be modified, depending on local demand.
The units will operate normally as unarmed, uniformed gardai but will switch into tactical dress if ordered to respond to an incident.
This will involve pulling on a zip-up jacket over the uniform and donning a special cap, with "armed support unit" markings.
The members will operate in purpose-built, Volvo XC 70 police specials, which are based on an estate car but have a reinforced chassis and modifications to the brakes, engine and suspension -- with the off-road capability of a jeep.
Affixable indentifying strips, flashing lights and an identifying matrix will mark out the turbo diesel cars, which will carry patrols of two or three officers and firearms ranging from MP7 sub machine guns and Sig handguns to less than lethal weapons.
The gardai are the first police force in the world to use this vehicle. Four XC 70s will be in use initially but an order has been placed for a total of 30.
Mr Rice said all RSU personnel were uniformed gardai who had not been carrying firearms regularly, but had proven experience as gardai.
An internal advertisement for members was oversubscribed and those selected were intensively trained in critical incident response, tactical deployment, negotiation techniques, less than lethal weapons, firearms, driving and forcing entry.
Officers said an RSU could also be used to deal with less serious issues such as serving a warrant in a difficult area.
Garda Commissioner Fachtna Murphy said the RSUs would enhance the overall level of service provided by the force to the community through a multi-purpose, skilled and well equipped group of personnel.
However, the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors said it felt the concept blurred the traditional ethos of the unarmed, uniformed gardai, which had served the country well, but it had agreed to the pilot scheme going ahead.