The feared loss of Waterford’s Rescue 117 helicopter base has prompted TDs and Senators from the southeast to seek an urgent meeting with the Minister for Transport.
Oireachtas members from every southeast county met on Tuesday morning in a “constructive meeting” regarding the search and rescue service, where it was agreed that they would next seek a meeting with Minister Eamon Ryan and Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton.
Concern over the base’s future comes as a new tender for the Irish Coast Guard aviation service references “a minimum” of three helicopter bases – instead of the current four operating in Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford.
The new €800 million contract for the service, tendered by the Department of Transport, will see an operator appointed for the next 10 years, with the pre-qualification stage ending January 26th.
The tender documentation states that bidders can propose more than the minimum number of bases, with the final number of bases and their locations not specified. Tenderers must propose “a suitable configuration of bases,” the documentation states.
There was always a fear in relation to the service
However, there are fears in the southeast that the Waterford base will be cut, following an attempt in 2010 to downgrade the 24-hour search and rescue service to a 12-hour, daylight-only service.
“There was a campaign at the time to reverse that decision and to resist that, which was successful. So there was always a fear in relation to the service,” said Waterford TD David Cullinane.
“The concern from Waterford Oireachtas members and others in the southeast came from the documentation associated with the pre-qualification stage, which talks about a minimum of three helicopters, where there is currently four.
“We had a very constructive meeting and I have to say there was a very strong turnout from right across the region, so every county was represented... across all parties and Independent groups.
“This pre-qualification stage is essentially scoping out the contractors that would have the ability and the scope to be able to deliver the service... then the next phase is the crucial phase, which would then set out the specifications and criteria in more detail.
“What we want to do is to meet the Minister ahead of any formal tendering process taking place, so there wouldn't be any perceived conflicts of interest. What we want to do is simply to point out the successes of the service.”
South-east TDs and Senators hope to meet with the Minister “sometime next week”.
The Irish Coast Guard highlighted the work of Rescue 117 last month, noting it successfully evacuated seven crew members from a fishing vessel that sank off the southwest coast in March last year.
The four helicopter crew members received national bravery awards, while crew member Sarah Courtney was additionally awarded a silver medal for her role and actions as “winchman” in the “most challenging of weather conditions”.
“Lives were saved,” said Mr Cullinane. “There was again examples of people being rescued from the Galtee Mountains, from lakes and the Comeragh Mountains.
“Waterford is geographically well-placed to provide the service, given that there is a range of mountains in the region and obviously the coastline from Wexford to Waterford, you could say down to east Cork as well.”
Mr Cullinane said he believes the specifications in the tendering process need to at the very least maintain “the status quo” of the current four bases.
Waterford City and County Councillors last week unanimously called for the retention of the base at Waterford Airport, as reported in the Waterford News & Star, stressing the need to retain all four bases currently operating on a 24/7 footing.
'We cannot lose the base'
Waterford City and County Mayor Joe Kelly said the tender for the new contract “needs to change” and that none of the four bases should be sacrificed.
Other local politicians such as Independent TD Matt Shanahan and Fianna Fáil Councillor Eddie Mulligan have also pressed for the region to “stand up and fight for Rescue 117.”
“We cannot lose the search and rescue helicopter base,” Cllr Mulligan said. “Not only for the development for the airport but the safety and security of everyone in the coastal communities, as we have seen countless times over the last few years, not least on Christmas day when Wexford became consumed by flooding.
“As someone with a background in maritime, who’s been involved in life-saving situations, it’s not only minutes that are vital - seconds are vital.”
Questions have also been raised about the competition for the provision of the Irish Coast Guard aviation service, with Independent Senator Gerard Craughwell telling the Waterford News & Star of his concerns.
“Firstly, it’s significant that the tender was issued just as the Oireachtas went into recess and then closes just days after the Oireachtas returns,” Senator Craughwell said. “I am deeply concerned at many of the aspects surrounding this entire process.”
The current €600 million contract, agreed in 2012, is being operated by CHC Ireland, a subsidiary of the Canadian Holding Company (CHC).