RNLI: We can't risk infection and two-week closure of a station

Members of the RNLI talk about the realities of saving lives for a living.
RNLI: We can't risk infection and two-week closure of a station
An RNLI all-weather lifeboat hits the waves at Achill, Co Mayo. The one thing crews are all concerned about is skill fade, as in the loss of skills due to the suspension of training on water.

RNLI lifeboat coxswain Seán O’Farrell has become quite a fan of a particular type of unscented Norwegian-formula cream.

Based in West Cork’s Courtmacsherry, O’Farrell reckons he had never had so much contact with alcohol — on his hands.

After four months of gelling, he is very keen on Neutrogena, and also knows how to sanitise every part of his station in his sleep.

All around the coast, inshore and all-weather RNLI lifeboats are also being scrubbed with extra vigour — right down to disinfection of handsets on marine radios.

“We had to make a very quick shift, and adopt new standard operating procedures early on,” O’Farrell says.

Crews going to sea with standard RNLI personal protective equipment (PPE) were directed to wear surgical masks under helmet visors, along with double sets of gloves.

“On cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), our instructions are to administer compressions only,” he says. “We also have to take extra precautions in administering first aid.” The new measures extend to alerting crews. Every volunteer who responds to a pager message must stay in their car outside the station, unless and until called, he explains.

“The coxswain selects the crew by pointing to the particular car, and we avoid putting too many coxswains and mechanics on the same call,” he says.

Coxswain at RNLI Courtmacsherry,  Seán O'Farrell says they can’t risk an infection that could affect key staff and volunteers, and close down an entire lifeboat station for two weeks.
Coxswain at RNLI Courtmacsherry,  Seán O'Farrell says they can’t risk an infection that could affect key staff and volunteers, and close down an entire lifeboat station for two weeks.

“We’re getting used to it very quickly because we are already a lot busier for this time of year,” his colleague, RNLI Wicklow station mechanic Brendan Copeland says.

“We would normally be training here every week, with a huge amount of volunteers of all ages,” Copeland says.

“So it was very awkward at the start to have to tell them they couldn’t drop down as they normally would, and all training and meetings and community fundraising events had to be suspended,” he says.

RNLI medical advisors like Dr Marion Broderick on Galway’s largest Aran island of Inis Mór and Dr Noreen Curtis on Achill, Co Mayo have relayed up-to-date advice on guidelines to crews.

“There are a lot of extra pieces of work with Covid-19, but we just adapt and keep going,” Dr Curtis says.

Her husband Dave Curtis is Achill lifeboat coxswain, and he and engineer colleague Michael Cattigan work a rota which allows for social distancing.

“Lots of things arise — we would normally bring the boat to Killybegs twice a year for hull cleaning, but now we are getting divers to do that locally, and I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve sterilised the entire station,” Curtis says.

“The one thing we are all concerned about is skill fade, as in the loss of skills due to the suspension of training on water, “ he says.

“We have all been allocated a week for a phased return which is very welcome,” Curtis says.

Water Safety Ireland chief executive John Leech had warned that as Covid-19 restrictions were lifted and travel plans cancelled, there could be the 'greatest number in history' on our waterways. Almost two million people live within five kilometres of the coast.

His deputy, Roger Sweeney, confirms there have already been incidents where people have ignored red flags, which are hoisted at guarded swimming locations to indicate conditions are too dangerous for swimming.

A RNLI lifeboat. Picture: RNLI
A RNLI lifeboat. Picture: RNLI

University College, Cork (UCC) science teaching student Rachel O’Brien is working for her fourth season as a lifeguard in her native county of Clare.

Along with her colleagues at Spanish Point, she has been trained in the use of a bag valve mask for resuscitation, while paddle boards used by the lifeguards have ample room to keep a casualty at a physical distance.

Each morning, the three lifeguards on duty will assess conditions, and place flags on the beach, denoting the safe area for swimming and for surfing.

“People are asked to stay between the flags, but some people think they are being more responsible by going off down the end of the beach to be distant - in fact, they may be putting themselves at risk,” she says.

Most of our issues have involved people getting caught in rip currents, or not listening to us and not staying between the flags.

“So we have been out on the boards quite a bit.” 

Given that Dublin Bay is the most densely populated area of the coast, it is no surprise that the RNLI Dún Laoghaire lifeboat station has recorded double the amount of call-outs so far for this time of year.

“Sandymount strand is always a risk for people who get caught with the tide, and we also have a lot more people engaging in solo activity on the water,” RNLI Dun Laoghaire coxswain Mark McGibney says.

RNLI Dún Laoghaire coxswain Mark McGibney. The station has recorded double the amount of call-outs so far for this time of year.
RNLI Dún Laoghaire coxswain Mark McGibney. The station has recorded double the amount of call-outs so far for this time of year.

“We’ve also had people walking in less frequented coastal patches to try and maintain physical distance, but they then have a bad fall,” he says.

“We would just ask people to take a buddy with them, whatever they are doing, and to notify someone ashore of where they are going,” McGibney adds.

Brendan Copeland says he is most impressed by the dedication of RNLI volunteers, now putting themselves at risk on several fronts.

“I’m full time in Wicklow, but we have volunteer crew from all walks of life — plumbers, electricians, roofers, Tesco workers, doctors,” Copeland says.

“I can’t believe their selflessness. To continue to show up for a shout in the middle of a pandemic is quite something...”

More in this section

Lifestyle
Newsletter

The best food, health, entertainment and lifestyle content from the Irish Examiner, direct to your inbox.

Sign up