Helicopter service rescued
SOUTH EAST'S 24-HOUR SEARCH-AND-RESCUE SERVICE IS TO BE RETAINED
THE SOUTH EAST'S 24-hour search-and-rescue helicopter service will be retained, following a u-turn by Transport Minister Noel Dempsey, inset, on the controversial plan yesterday (Tuesday). Mr Dempsey summoned the region's Fianna Fáil TDs and Senators – all of whom opposed the move – to his office at 4 p.m. to inform them that the service would not now be reduced to daylight hours in 2013, as had been originally proposed, sparking outrage throughout Co Wexford and the entire south east.
He told them the news as the busy helicopter participated in a search for a missing kayaker off the south Wexford coast.
Politicians of all ranks and parties throughout the region had opposed the planned cutting of the service, as had the local search and rescue services such as the Coast Guard and RNLI, while around 24,000 people had signed up to a Facebook campaign against the planned cutbacks and an online petition had already gathered 6,700 signatures.
It's understood that Fianna Fáil chairman John Browne also strongly emphasised the importance of the search and rescue service issue to the party's TDs and Senators in the region to Taoiseach Brian Cowen earlier this week when the men met to discuss today's crunch parliamentary party meeting, where Mr Cowen's leadership will be called into question.
However, it's understood that Mr Dempsey's u-turn has as much to do with cost savings as political pressure.
Senator Lisa McDonald, who was present at yesterday's meeting, said that the Transport Minister has 'done a better deal and achieved a reduction in the cost', finding the financial leeway to scrap the plans to reduce the Waterford-based service, which was going to save an estimated €1 million a year.
The cost of the new 10-year contract with CHC Helicopter Corporation was to be €50 million per year compared to €27 million per year for the existing contract with the same company, but it seems Mr Dempsey has now struck a better deal.
Under the terms of the new contract it's understood that there will be 24hour search and rescue helicopter cover at each of the country's four bases – Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford – and a fifth helicopter on permanent standby.
'It was absolutely crucial that a 24hour service was retained in the south east – anything else couldn't have been condoned,' said Senator McDonald.
Similar sentiments were expressed by Fine Gael chief whip Paul Kehoe, who reckoned the pressure brought to bear by TDs throughout the south east region had forced the Transport Minister's hand.
The Minister's u-turn is also a welcome boost for newly appointed Junior Minister Seán Connick, who had strongly opposed the proposed reduction in the service before – and after – his promotion last week. 'I received confirmation from Minister Noel Dempsey that the Government entered into contract negotiations yesterday to secure a 24-hour service at all four existing helicopter sites, including Waterford,' said Mr Connick. 'Successful conclusion of a contract for a four-base 24-hour service would mean the continuation of the Irish Coast Guard search-and-rescue helicopter service, by way of a new contract to come into effect on a staggered basis from mid-2012 for a fleet of helicopters – one constantly at readiness at each base over ten years,' said Mr Connick.
'There was a lot of anxiety in the south east over the past week due to fears that the helicopter service would only operate on a part time basis. This will be very welcome news,' he said.
The mounting pressure on Mr Dempsey had escalated yesterday morning when it emerged that a draft memo to Government, drawn up by the Department of Transport in January, acknowledged that lives would be put at risk by having no helicopter cover in the region from 9.30 p.m. to 9.30 a.m.
The memo said there could be a 40minute delay in getting helicopter cover from the remaining 24-hour rescue helicopter bases – in Sligo, Shannon and Dublin – to the south east and conceded that not all people at risk of drowning off the south east coast would be rescued within the so-called 'golden hour', when medical treatment is required to give the best chance of survival.