War of words over search and rescue deal
A WAR of words has broken out between the head of the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) and a former Air Corps boss over the cost of a new €500m maritime search and rescue contract.
IRCG director Chris Reynolds has taken ex-Air Corps brigadier general John O'Brien to task over claims that tens of millions of euro could have been saved if all or part of the lucrative contract went to the Air Corps.
The deal, which will run from 2012 to 2022, was instead done with Canadian firm CHC Helicopter.
CHC will be paid €50m a year to make new generation Sikorsky S92 helicopters available 24 hours a day at bases in Shannon, Sligo, Dublin, and Waterford for coastguard search and rescue missions.
The fee is almost double the €27m-a-year CHC currently gets for providing maritime search and rescue.
Mr O'Brien told the Irish Independent last week that the costs would have been substantially less if the Air Corps was involved, but it was not asked to tender.
He also claimed the existing Air Corps AW139 helicopters could, with a small amount of modification, be upgraded to a 24-hour capability and used as part of the search and rescue service.
However, IRCG director Chris Reynolds hit back at Mr O'Brien's claims.
He said a cost analysis by the Department of Transport had shown that using the Air Corps would have been €100m more expensive than using a private operator.
Mr Reynolds also said the Air Corps was in no position to tender for the contract as it would have needed a prohibitively long lead-in time. "It would take the Air Corps five years to get to that capability from a standing start," he said.
"With the best will in the world, they wouldn't have the time."
Mr Reynolds also said Mr O'Brien was not comparing like with like when he suggested current helicopters could be modified for 24-hour availability.
"The new S92 helicopters will be much more sophisticated, have a larger capacity and a longer range," he said.
Mr O'Brien, who retired in 2002, wrote to Transport Minister Noel Dempsey in May seeking a meeting to make the case for Air Corps involvement in search and rescue. However, Mr Dempsey refused to meet him, as the CHC deal was close to being finalised. A spokesman for Mr Dempsey said the Department of Defence had advised his department in June 2008 that the Air Corps was "not an option".
The Air Corps had been involved in search and rescue for 40 years before being stood down by former Defence Minister Michael Smith in 2004, when a private contract was awarded to CHC.