The Irish Coast Guard was established in 2000, evolving from the former Irish Marine Emergency Service (IMES) founded in 1991.
The service is considered one of the most progressive search-and-rescue organisations in the world with 1,000 volunteers from 47 bases around the country.
Units are located in coastal areas and inland waterways while volunteers work off a pager system, answering calls 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. It has been estimated 800,000 man hours of service are performed by volunteers annually, with officers-in-charge (OIC) devoting up to 2,000 hours a year in direct service.
Most units are equipped with boats including Delta ribs (rigid inflatable boats) and D-class inflatable boats.
All stations have a range of land vehicles at their disposal including 4x4s, personnel carriers and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs). The units are also backed up by a fleet of state-of-the-art search and rescue helicopters, of which there are five with one on standby as a back-up.
The aircraft are based at Dublin, Waterford and Sligo airports as well as Shannon where the first helicopter search and rescue (SAR) base was opened in 1991 under IMES.
The helicopter crew is made up of four members including a pilot, co-pilot, winch operator and winchman. An engineer also travels on board for long-range off-shore operations.
The helicopters are operated on a contract basis on behalf of the Department of Transport and Irish Coast Guard by CHC Ireland. Helicopter crews are also employed by the company.
The winch operator is required to be an accredited PHECC (Pre-Hospital Emergency Care Council) emergency medical technical (EMT) while the winchman is a trained PHECC-registered paramedic.
A helicopter fleet replacement programme commenced in 2012 as part of a 10-year contract awarded to CHC Ireland by the Government in 2010.
As part of the deal, CHC Ireland committed to replacing the old fleet of Sikorsky S61N helicopters with the newer state-of-the-art S92A series aircraft.
The first S92A helicopter was shipped new from the US via Southampton to Shannon, while the other four aircraft were secondhand, previously based in the UK.
As well as having an extended range and being able to fly faster than the previous fleet of S61Ns, the Sikorsky S92A is fitted with enhanced rescue technology including infra-red and low-light cameras, a satellite communications system and high-speed dual hoists.
The helicopters are also equipped with a neo-natal transport unit to transfer seriously ill newborn babies between hospitals and can operate in a helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) role.
In 2016, the Coast Guard co-ordinated 2,500 incidents through its three Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centres based at Valentia Island in Kerry, Malin in Donegal, and its Dublin-based headquarters. A total of 405 people who were rescued or assisted were categorised as “lives saved”. Coast Guard units and helicopters also assisted with the recovery of 45 bodies as a result of drowning and other missing person searches.
Crews conducted 61 patient transfers from offshore islands in 2016 and transferred nine patients to hospitals in the UK for emergency procedures mainly organ transplants.
Irish Coast Guard helicopters also assisted the HSE’s emergency aeromedical service air ambulance service 258 times last year.
Crews also conducted 20 long-range offshore missions, involving casualty evacuations at ranges exceeding 100 nautical miles (185km) from land.
The longest of these missions was conducted at a range of 150 nautical miles (278km) West of Loop Head, Co Clare, on March 7, when an injured crewman was airlifted for transfer to hospital.
Overall, Coast Guard helicopters completed 886 missions which included 36 casualty evacuations at sea.
There were also 23 occasions last year where helicopters crews were requested to investigate suspected pollution investigation missions arising from satellite based reports.
The service was rocked by the tragic loss of volunteer Caitríona Lucas last September. The mother of two was a member of the Doolin unit and was taking part in a search operation near Kilkee on September 12 when she lost her life.
Last Sunday was the six-month anniversary of the death of Caitríona — the first Irish Coast Guard volunteer to die on active service.
The loss of Rescue 116 off the Mayo coast this week occurred less than a day after CHC staff and Irish Coast Guard members paid their respects to one of the Irish Coast Guard’s more experienced crewmen who died after an illness last week.
Former Air Corps Flight Sgt Daithí Ó Cearbhalláin was one of the most decorated helicopter crewmen in Ireland and was chief crewman at the Shannon Airport base.
The helicopter winchman and paramedic was the recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal in 1992 died on the 27th anniversary of the rescue mission for which he received the DSM.
He received the Sir Edward Maisie Lewis award, the Department of Marine Meritorious Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) with distinction after in assisting in the rescue of four trawlermen from the fishing vessel Locative off the Donegal Coast on March 9, 1990.
After leaving the Irish Air Corps in 2002, he joined CHC Ireland at Shannon Airport becoming senior crewman and later chief crewman with responsibility for standards within the operation.
He was afforded military honours at his funeral last Saturday while a cremation service was held on Monday.
Coast Guard volunteers around the country have been calling for some time for the service to be legislated for and put on the same standing as other frontline emergency services.
Volunteers claim the service is constantly under threat, primarily due to political manoeuvring and not getting the deserved recognition at departmental levels. Members say the State needs to look very vigorously at the Officer in Charge position, and want a revised system of payment implemented as soon as possible.
Promises of more full-time staff have not materialised and the volunteers’ group say three sector managers, covering a 7,500km coastline, is a near-impossible task.
Volunteers says the work demands at least six sector managers with nine assistant managers and that this would provide the service with “a proper chain of command, filled by qualified, experienced personnel as is the case with the three other legislated primary response agencies”.
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