Wing and a prayer for the future of Waterford Coast Guard Rescue Base

Transport Minister Eamon Ryan has admitted in recent days that the potential loss of the Waterford search and rescue base is a ‘life or death’ situation.

The fear is that the base could be lost under a new contract worth hundreds of millions of euros for the renewal of Irish Coastguard air services.

The current bases from which these search and rescue helicopters are launched are in Shannon, Sligo, Dublin and Waterford.

However, the tender for the €800 million contract states that there should be a “minimum” of three helicopters included in the new contract; this raised fears that Waterford could lose its helicopter base, which would have ramifications for the southern and southeastern region.

The R117 helicopter operates from Waterford, and its crews had a busy year in 2021; typically, he answers around 700 calls a year, but that number jumped to over 900 in the last year.

In fact, in its year-end statement, the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) said the crew of R117 witnessed one of the “most notable incidents” last year when a vessel from fishing sank off the south coast in March 2021.

Seven crew members were rescued from FV Ellie Adhamh, and the operation was supported by Naval Service and RNLI resources.

Bravery Award for Helicopter Crew

Four helicopter crew members received national bravery awards and R117 crew member Sarah Courtney received a silver medal for her role and actions as a hoist in the harshest weather conditions .

Council meetings in Waterford and Kilkenny highlighted the rescues carried out on the Comeragh Mountains, the area’s beaches and its use for agricultural accidents.

Waterford City and County Council have agreed to write to Mr Ryan stressing the need to retain all rescue bases in the future.

Caitlin Ui Aodha is president of the charity LAST (Lost at Sea Tragedies) which promotes safety on land and at sea for the fishing industry and provides support to bereaved families.

She lost her husband Michael at sea in 2012 and said she was shocked the possibility of withdrawing the service from Waterford was even being mooted.

“It’s outrageous to think we’re having this conversation,” she said. “The importance of having a search and rescue service is well known. We are an island — we need it all around the coast.

It’s not something that should be up for debate. There are essential services in the country on which no cost or value can be attributed.

Ms Ui Aodha also pointed out that it is “strange” that when there are debates about services, it is always those that are government funded.

“The likes of the RNLI are voluntary, and without it you couldn’t imagine what would happen. But there is never a debate about it. It gets stronger, and it’s all voluntary. The state does not understand this.

In order to avoid such a scenario, considerable political weight is put in place by the TDs and the senators who have united on the issue.

Sinn Féin’s David Cullinane said while there was no immediate threat to the Waterford base, clarification needed to be made quickly on the matter.

Last week, a group of regional independent politicians submitted a motion to the Dáil and Seanad calling for the bidding process to be scrapped and for the implementation of recommendations made in a number of independent reports, such than those on the fatal R116 accident.

Calls to suspend the process seem, for now at least, unlikely to succeed as the deadline for contractors to respond to the first phase of the process is set for this Wednesday.

The RFP indicated the intention to award the contract in the last three months of 2021, with the new service expected to begin in the summer of 2023.

Transport Minister Eamon Ryan said the current phase of the tender process is to determine interest in providing the service. Photo: Gareth Chaney/Collins Pictures Dublin

Speaking on RTÉ radio last week, Eamon Ryan said the next phase of the tender process will provide more details on the search and rescue service’s requirements. This would include greater precision on the number of bases in the country, he said.

He said the current phase of the bidding process is to determine interest in providing the service.

Mr Ryan said it was a ‘critical’ issue and the government would ensure the tender was handled in a ‘proper and organized manner so that we get the best value for money and that we get the best service”.

He called it a ‘life or death’ matter and said ‘we have to get it right’.

In response to a request from Irish Examiner, the Department of Transport said the government agreed last July to start the formal procurement process for a new Coast Guard Aviation Service.

“The first stage of the process has begun, the posting on eTenders of a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) and response document for applicants to complete,” he said.

The PQQ sets out certain criteria for determining which operators have the capacity to perform the contract. The deadline for responses is January 26, 2022.

“The PQQ states that the minimum requirement is three helicopters and one fixed-wing aircraft on standby for Coast Guard Aviation missions. This is a minimum requirement for standby aircraft, bidders may offer more.

To clarify, the information disseminated in the PQQ listed the minimum IRCG requirements.

A detailed specification will be included in the next stage of the competition, i.e. when the tender documents (RFTs) will be released to the market by the end of March 2022. The indicative date for the award of the contract is March 2023.

“The existing helicopter service contract with CHCI commenced on July 1, 2012, for a period of 10 years, with an option to extend for three years. The contract has since been extended until July 2024.”

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