Sunday 21 January 2018

Rescue staff and country put at risk as Coast Guard falls short

Documents reveal concerns since first death of volunteer

Catriona Lucas, a Coast Guard volunteer who died in September during a rescue operation
Catriona Lucas, a Coast Guard volunteer who died in September during a rescue operation
Wayne O'Connor

Wayne O'Connor

The country as well as rescue staff and volunteers are being put at risk because of major shortcomings in the Irish Coast Guard, documents from the Department of Transport show.

Training deficiencies, a lack of quality assurances and staffing shortages are rife in the organisation, hindering its day-to-day operations. The concerns have come to light in a series of internal memos prepared since the death of Coast Guard volunteer Catriona Lucas.

Major shipping casualties and risks posed by a potential pollution incident are also being exposed by vacancies in vital roles that have been unfilled for some time, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show government restrictions on recruitment of technical staff to the Coast Guard will continue to have a huge impact on how the emergency response body carries out its work if the problem is not addressed.

"There are a number of vacancies in important posts at the Irish Coast Guard that have not been filled, to the detriment of the delivery of service, leaving the Irish Coast Guard (and hence the State) very exposed to some risks - such as dealing with a major shipping casualty or pollution incident," says one document from the department dated November 11, 2016.

A note from October highlighted concerns about the operational readiness of cliff, search and boat rescue teams.

It found resources were constrained and there was a lack of follow up on findings about assessments on equipment used by rescue teams. There were also concerns about the training they were provided with.

The document, titled Challenges in Managing Coast Guard Units, warned the department needed to consider providing further leadership for rescue units and assess the work load and responsibility assigned to volunteers.

Failure to adhere to the warning would hold serious consequences in the future, the document warned.

"The overarching issue is the ratio of full-time staff to volunteers and identification of strategies to mitigate the problem," it said.

"New skills and procedures need to be reinforced and developed. Courses in themselves are of little value unless the skills are applied with coaching, oversight and supervision.

"With current staffing levels corporate knowledge easily dissipates."

It comes as the Coast Guard and the Marine Casualty Investigation Board carry out separate probes into the death of Catriona Lucas, a 41-year-old mother of two and Coast Guard volunteer who died in September during a rescue operation.

The Kilkee Coast Guard's Delta RIB (rigid inflatable boat) she had been working on capsized as she became the first volunteer to be killed in the line of duty working for the organisation.

A spokesperson for the department said these investigations were ongoing and they could not comment on the matter.

Government officials have also been warned constrained resources are having a major impact on any follow up to findings in relation to concerns expressed about the "operational readiness" of equipment.

A spokesperson for the Department of Transport said the safety of Coast Guard staff and volunteers was of primary importance.

He added significant restructuring had taken place in recent years.

"The department is in negotiation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on workforce planning with the view to seeking sanction to source additional staffing resources to support the department and this includes resources to further support the Coast Guard and its volunteers, in delivering its service on our coast."

Sunday Independent

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