Search and rescue cuts ‘will put lives at risk’

THE Government has been accused of putting lives at risk over plans to reduce the Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter service in the south-east.

Local politicians and members of the emergency services have reacted furiously to the plan, which would mean the helicopter service would cease as a 24-hour operation and would instead operate for just 12 hours a day.

The plan, if implemented, would mean that after-hours emergencies requiring helicopter rescue would have to be fielded by the Dublin service, adding to the response time.

The Department of Transport proposal could save an estimated €1 million a year, but sparked an angry reaction from Wexford, Waterford and Cork.

Fine Gael Waterford Deputy John Deasy said the plan would mean a delay of up to 90 minutes in an emergency situation, which could have serious repercussions for the safety of fishermen and others who may experience difficulties off the south-east coastline.

Mr Deasy’s Fine Gael colleague, David Stanton TD, has also expressed concern over the move, while Fianna Fáil backbencher Brendan Kenneally also called on the Department of Transport to explain in detail the savings that would be made by downgrading the Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter base in Waterford.

“I really do question the rationale behind this decision,” said Mr Kenneally. “Even if the €1m saving is accurate I’m still not sure that justifies this move. What price do we put on people’s safety? Surely there are other areas of Government expenditure that would be more appropriate for a saving of this kind.”

Mr Deasy said: “If you take a look at the savings that they have indicated they will make [as a result] it does not impress me when you consider we are dealing with people’s lives. It is not just fishermen who are affected.

“There are three other 24-hour services that will be maintained and it does not make sense.”

He said the reasons given for maintaining a 24-hour service out of Dublin was that it was a busy port, yet he argued the curtailment of the south-east service would affect both Waterford and Cork ports.

The RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) said it would not be making a comment on the department plan, but privately some members have expressed serious misgivings.

In a statement, the department said a preferred bidder has been nominated to supply the Coast Guard’s search and rescue helicopter contract service.

“There will be no change in the existing 24-hour service from four centres until the new contract enters on a phased basis in 2012-2013.

“Thereafter, it is expected that the four existing bases will continue in operation, with Waterford on a 12-hour basis, subject to review. The Department of Transport does not propose to comment further on the contract until the tender process is completed.”

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