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'Significant restrictions' on emergency helicopter service on days when Air Corps not available

An internal Department of Defence briefing highlights the restrictions on where the Coast Guard helicopter can reach.

File photo of an Air Corps helicopter.
File photo of an Air Corps helicopter.
Image: Shutterstock/gabriel12

AN INTERNAL DEPARTMENT of Defence briefing warned that there would be significant restrictions on emergency helicopter services because the Air Corps was not in position to provide the service for four days each month.

The Coast Guard would be tasked with providing “reserve cover” for the stoppages to allow the Air Corps four months to deal with “HR challenges” and “a reduction in personnel numbers”, according to documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

In an internal briefing passed on to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s advisers, the Department of Defence said there would be many more restrictions on where the Coast Guard helicopter could reach.

“It has far more restrictions on where it can land safely compared to the Air Corps, thus potentially further away from a casualty,” the briefing said.

It explained that Coast Guard helicopters were based along the coast rather than the central location of the Air Corps in Athlone.

The “shift pattern” in the Coast Guard “can result in lessened availability” during morning periods although the Coast Guard said it would endeavour to provide extra cover on the days the Air Corps were unavailable.

The briefing said that unlike the Air Corps, it was not a dedicated service but was only provided on request, and that it carried paramedics rather than advanced paramedics.

The document noted: “The National Ambulance Service also currently tasks a charity helicopter for [emergency] missions in the south of the country.

“They have indicated they will also use it where possible further afield but, due to its smaller range, it will have limited utility beyond the midlands.”

Details of why the Air Corps were forced to stand down the service for four days each month in the period from November of last year to this February are also outlined.

It said that “notwithstanding the well-documented ongoing HR challenges” in the Air Corps, the emergency service had been provided until now without interruption.

It said the break period was needed to allow for the “overall governance and safety management” of the Air Corps.

‘Training surge’ 

The four days each month in question were days when pilots with Lieutenant Colonel rank were rostered to fly the AW139 helicopter.

The briefing said these pilots were needed in their offices to ensure “supervision and oversight levels in the Air Corps are maintained”.

They said during the four-month period, there would be a “training surge” to get aircraft commanders ready for emergency helicopter duties from March onwards.

“The advice was framed in the context of the safety performance of the Air Corps due to a reduction in personnel numbers and the consequent change to the organisation’s risk profile,” the briefing said.

What would happen “in extremis” or in the event of a major incident was also outlined.

“The Chief of Staff has confirmed that the Air Corps retain a contingent capability and that in extremis, such as a major emergency out of the normal that every effort would be made to deploy the Air Corps if required,” it said.

According to the document, both the Department of Health and the HSE had “voiced concern” over the interruptions in the service.

“It was acknowledged that the Coast Guard did not fully replicate the service provided by the Air Corps,” it said.

Pilot shortages 

The Air Corps said it was doing everything in its power to restore the organisation to “greater operational capability” and address pilot shortages.

A retention scheme for pilots had been launched, personnel would be trained on a US Army helicopter training course from May 2020, and three former personnel had re-entered service during recent months.

In an email sent on 14 November, Brigadier General Rory O’Connor of the Air Corps said it was his intention “to return to full capacity (plus spare) as a matter of urgency”.

However, later internal emails appear to suggest a full return to service may not be absolutely guaranteed by March.

A message from an Air Corps commandant to the Department of Defence on 3 December said: “It is EXPECTED [their capitals] to return to full-service provision in March 2020.”

In a statement, the Department of Defence said the interruption to Air Corps service was “regrettable but necessary”.

It said: “The Coast Guard committed to optimising its capability in terms of responding to taskings from the National Ambulance Service for the 16 days when the Air Corps will be unavailable.”

It said the Irish Community Rapid Response service based in the south of the country was also providing “additional cover” by locating its second helicopter in the vicinity of Roscommon Hospital on the four days each month.

“The safety of serving personnel, HSE staff and patients is the shared number one priority and our whole focus is returning the … service provided by the Air Corps to full capacity as quickly as possible,” the statement said.

‘No loss of life’

In November it was announced that the Irish Community Rapid Response (ICRR), an air ambulance service based in Cork, would provide assistance for four days a month until February from a new base in Roscommon.

At the time Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the situation was “not ideal”, but he did not think the staffing shortages will result in a loss of life.

“I don’t believe there will be any risk to life or risk of injury,” he said, adding that there was no air ambulance in Ireland up to five or six years ago.

“Now we have two – one based in Athlone and one based in Cork, because of that, we need to train new cadets and new pilots,” he said.

“They’re being better resourced than they ever have been in the past. But, notwithstanding that there are challenges, particularly when it comes to recruiting and retaining staff.

“The issue involving the Coast Guard isn’t to do with financial resources – it is to do with equipment and life jackets and hopefully it can be resolved quite soon.

“The Athlone helicopter, run by the Defence Forces, will be off duty, but we have a solution in place to provide cover. The auxiliary backup helicopter from Cork will move to the midlands and will be backed up from the Coast Guard too,” Varadkar added. 

The ICRR – which is charity-funded – last week appealed for the public’s help after a funding shortfall of €400,000.

With reporting by Órla Ryan

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