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Flying high again at SUH

The first official landing of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 118 took place at Sligo University Hospital's new €300k Helipad, Ciara Galvin reports


Thumbs up for new helipad from Co Pilot Ciaran Duignan and P1 Pilot Paraic Slattery. Pics: Carl Brennan

Thumbs up for new helipad from Co Pilot Ciaran Duignan and P1 Pilot Paraic Slattery. Pics: Carl Brennan

Thumbs up for new helipad from Co Pilot Ciaran Duignan and P1 Pilot Paraic Slattery. Pics: Carl Brennan


Ten to fifteen minutes can be the difference between life and death when it comes to patients needing serious medical attention.

That is why the new helipad at Sligo University Hospital is so important, the crew of the Irish Coastguard Helicopter Rescue 118 explained to The Sligo Champion recently.

The new helipad has been over a year in the making, and on Wednesday last it welcomed its first official landing of the Irish Coastguard helicopter.

The nature of the Irish Coastguard crew's emergency response was clear to see on the morning of the official flight, as the crew took part in a media interview before the flight from its base at Sligo Airport, to SUH, it was tasked to tend an emergency. Urgent care was required and the first official flight to the hospital's new helipad looked like it was to be postponed.

However, after being stood down, the crew continued on as planned.

"We got tasked down to Roscommon to a casualty. As part of our support to the National Ambulance Service where we would help the ambulance service transport casualties," explained Paraic Slattery, captain of Rescue 118.


Rescue 118 lands at the new helipad last Wednesday (10th)

Rescue 118 lands at the new helipad last Wednesday (10th)

Rescue 118 lands at the new helipad last Wednesday (10th)

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After landing at the new helipad, the captain described the new facility as 'fantastic'., with the best views in Ireland, while acknowledging that Wednesday morning's rain and mist was not conducive to show off Sligo's beauty.

"It [helipad] makes the whole thing expeditious and it enhances the safety for the lads on the ground and the casualty, and for us, the crew."

Prior to the helicopter landing, security were on hand to cordon off the area to any traffic.

On average, the Rescue 118 crew are tasked with over 300 call outs per year, and the captain says on a busy day, this could mean up to five emergencies.

Nationwide there are four Irish Coastguard bases, Sligo, Dublin, Waterford and Shannon and between them they cover approximately 800 call outs per year.

Captain Slattery says call outs can be 'cyclical' and depending on the seasons, length of the day and the weather.

"The more people that are out on the mountains, it statistically leads to more flights."

Speaking of weather, he says coming into good weather in the summer people should know they can contact emergency services by dialling 999 or 112 if they see anyone in trouble.

The crew are continuously training and are currently undertaking night vision training which will allow them to enhance their safety at night and increase their capabilities.

The Sligo based crew cover a huge area, including everything north west of Athlone, to the westernmost point of Galway at Slyne Head, and over to Rathlin Island off the Antrim coast.

"It's a big patch, we crossover into the North quite a bit on request of the UK Coastguard and we're all coordinated through the Irish Coastguard MRCC Centre in Malinhead who is our tasking authority. So the calls come in via them."

So what does the new helipad mean for the crew serving the North West?

"It compliments the service provided by the coastguard and CHC [helicopter provider] and for our patch in the North West, and our base in Strandhill. We travel to Letterkenny Hospital and Galway, but Sligo Hospital is our home patch, so it's a fantastic facility to have on our doorstep."

Captain Slattery, who has been based in Sligo for over eight years, went on to explain the huge network that is coordinated into providing emergency assistance to those in need.

"The coastguard have a huge amount of grounds teams, it also tasks the RNLI, the helicopter service, the National Ambulance Service there's great coverage and a huge overlap of all of that, and the mountain rescue team."

Nine years ago the coastguard got new helicopters, the Sikorsky S-92s which, according to Captain Slattery, enhanced safety and the service for both the crews who use them, and the people they help to transport.

"We have about a 250 nautical mile range out to sea so it's a huge coverage for coastal areas and for the maritime areas".

Speaking about being able to land once again at the hospital after an absence of some two years, the captain said, "It's great to be back".

"The point of the helipads on the hospital sites is that you're providing that expeditious service to casualties in need, to get them to the door as quick as possible."

In terms of changes to processes and protocols during the pandemic, the crew are obviously masked up on call outs, social distanced where possible, and a Covid protocol is in place to assess if the patient is Covid positive or negative.

Asked if the previous year has been quieter, given the pandemic and people's movements being restricted, Captain Slattery says it has been.

"It certainly has been a little bit quieter and you could see with lockdowns it got quieter and as things opened back up it got busier again. But we would see that trend anyway throughout the year with weather."

Speaking to the man behind the project, Shane Bonner, of Rose Aviation, he is asked what went into designing the new helipad.

"It's quite a complex procedure. A lot of people would just presume it's just a 'H' painted on the ground, but there's a lot of dimensional requirements, flight path clearance, angles, a lot of maths really. To make sure that the helipad itself complies with international aviation regulations, and ultimately the reason they [helipads] are there is to make it safe as far as possible for the crews and also as efficient as possible for the patient."

Mr Bonner has been working on the project for over the past year and says there was a lot of pre planning and designing.

"Following the construction a few weeks ago we did some flight trials and some test runs with the staff here and it all went very well...and now it's open for business."

As the Operations Director of Rose Aviation, Mr Bonner said the new helipad in Sligo represents a shift for all helipad equipped hospitals in moving away from old fashioned standard helipads towards something more modern and "hopefully a future proofed one that will last for decades to come."

For Rescue 118 winch man, Richard Wallis, the new helipad represents a major positive for patients the crew deal with.

"It's a great facility. Really the main benefit is for the patients, we're going to be carrying, less of a delay instead of having to come from Sligo Airport and transit in the ambulance. They can be in the ED [Emergency Department] in a few minutes, that's where it really makes a difference for us. It's really about the patient."

Mr Wallis adds, "The whole reason we're here is for the people we carry, getting the patients to advanced care as quickly as we can, and especially in the more serious cases, that ten or fifteen minutes can make a difference between life and death. It's fantastic to see it open and to be able to land in Sligo hospital again."

Robert Tatten, General Manager of CHC Ireland, who provide the Irish Coast Guard with search and rescue services, was also on the flight from the Strandhill base to the hospital's new helipad.

"It's a great addition from the HSE and it's a great addition for the coast guard," said Mr Tatten, who added that the Sligo base at Sligo Airport would be CHC's busiest in the country.

CHC is the contract provider to the coast guard and CHC has been providing that for over 20 years.Mr Tatten commended the HSE for its help in relation to managing Covid-19 and getting crews tested.

"In the very beginning when people had symptoms that was a big risk for us, trying to keep bases online...We've 138 staff and when Covid arrived we needed to get people tested, and the HSE helped."

Explaining the seriousness of a Covid positive case at one of the bases, Mr Tatten says taking one person out can take down an entire base - two engineers, two tech crew and two pilots. Once within 12 months the Sligo base had to come offline due to Covid-19.

"The HSE were a great support to us, and this [helipad] is a great addition."