Kerry water rescue unit pleads for volunteers

A community-run water rescue unit is urgently seeking volunteers.

Killarney Water Rescue which provides a search and recovery service is reportedly operating with just seven members.

Since it was established 20 years ago, it has mainly assisted in searches and recoveries in the famed but challenging Lakes of Killarney.

The local service is one of about 30 community water rescue groups operating in almost every county. Although not officially recognised by the Coast Guard as a “declared resource”, they are approved by Irish Water Safety. All are usually tasked to scenes of incidents by official agencies.

Sinéad Sweetman, who with her husband Jimmy and several others are “part of a tight ship” in the Killarney service, said: “It’s an invaluable resource. It is well-equipped with three boats and volunteers are trained to a certificate level in search and rescue.”

She said the unit strength is seven volunteers, about half of what it enjoyed at a peak.

“We are surrounded by water in Killarney, but there is little interest in the rescue service,” she said.

Ms Sweetman said that, as with many voluntary organisations in south Kerry where few young people remain after the age of 17 and where the population is ageing, support services find it difficult to recruit volunteers.

Killarney, meanwhile, has one of the oldest populations of what is categorised as a large town, with an average age of almost 41.

In the past 10 days, the service was involved in a river search for a person, but the role of volunteers in the service has also included evacuation during flood emergencies and assisting tourists who “lost their way in near-jungle conditions” in Killarney National Park’s rhododendron forest in the upper lake, which can only be reached by boat.

Few people seem to know the lakes minutely, said Ms Sweetman.

She said the service also requires personnel to assist with church gate and street collections for flag days, as well as shore searchers and general helpers.

New members, she said, do not have to be divers or even swimmers.

Ms Sweetman said the group’s mission is to assist people in difficulties and bring the stricken some comfort. She said, however, much of their work is the grim task of searching for bodies.

Over the years, the group has recovered 10 bodies, mainly from the Killarney Lakes, but have also been called into searches north of the border, Drogheda, Athy, Listowel, and Cork city.

Training includes how to launch and recover a boat, the geography of Killarney, asnd training to certificate level in search and rescue.

Kerry Mountain Rescue, also a voluntary-run service, said the work of the water rescue unit is “invaluable”.

The mountaineers’ rescue unit said that it also works hard to maintain volunteer numbers at 35.

“Volunteer organisations like this are not for everyone,” said spokesman Alan Wallace. Although it was involved in two rescues last week in Carrauntoohil, including the recovery of a tourist in a fatal fall, Mr Wallace said: “Two call-outs in two days during the working week was an exception; usually most emergencies occur at weekends or bank holiday periods.”

Both organisations indicated it is not easy maintaining numbers due to retirements, work transfers, people seeking breaks, or “others deciding volunteering was not for them”.

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