Coast Guard safety must be a priority
The Irish Coast Guard, which has existed in various forms since the foundation of the State, provides an essential service over and above what might be ordinarily realised. As an island nation, Ireland relies heavily on the Coast Guard, to reduce loss of life on the country's seas, lakes, waterways and rivers, coastal and remote areas. Indeed, such missions form only part of the Coast Guard's broad range of functions, for which many people the length and breadth of the country have had cause to avail and occasion to be grateful.
In any given year, the Coast Guard can expect to participate in 2,500 marine emergencies; assist 4,500 people and save about 200 lives; task helicopters on missions around 800 times, of which 40 times to assist in mountain rescues and 150 times to carry out aeromedical missions on behalf of the HSE. Coast Guard volunteers also respond 1,000 times, and RNLI and community lifeboats will be tasked about 950 times in a year.
Further to that, the Coast Guard evacuates medical patients off our islands to hospital on around 100 occasions; assists other nations' Coast Guards about 200 times; makes around 6,000 maritime safety broadcasts to shipping, fishing and leisure craft users; carries out safety on the water campaigns that target primary schools and leisure craft users and, further to all of that, investigates approximately 50 maritime pollution reports.
These are among the reasons why people always respond with such warmth and generosity towards the marine rescue services, and undoubtedly why people have reacted with such a profound sense of shock to the tragedy which has befallen the brave crew of the Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 off the coast of Co Mayo on March 14 last. It should be recalled, of course, that the families, colleagues and friends of Captains Dara Fitzpatrick and Mark Duffy, winchman Ciaran Smith and winch operator Paul Ormsby are not alone in their loss at this time.
It is not a year since the death of Irish Coast Guard volunteer Catriona Lucas, a mother of two, who died off the coast of Co Clare during a search operation.
That such a heavy toll has been taken on the Irish Coast Guard service will inevitably lead to questions which must be answered. At a minimum, however, an urgent review must be immediately undertaken by the company that runs the Irish Coast Guard helicopter service to re-evaluate all route guides in use by its search and rescue helicopters. Further to that, the lifejacket manufacturer should review its instructions for locating beacons.
In the longer term, however, reviews will not be sufficient. All necessary actions must be taken to ensure the safety of those in the Irish Coast Guard who put their lives at risk to help others. Such a statement might seem unnecessary, but should be stated all the same. Over the years there have been many reviews of the Irish Coast Guard service. In the Dail four years ago, a senior official in the Department of Transport admitted of the service: "We face difficulties. We are very stretched for resources and we have identified gaps."
This is not to state that such gaps are at all responsible for the tragic fate which has befallen the crew of Rescue 116, or other colleagues who have lost their lives. But this most tragic incident has served as a shocking reminder that all effort must be made to protect the good men and women who work, and volunteer for, what is a great and essential national service.