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Dublin: 15 °C Wednesday 20 March, 2019
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Irish Coast Guard staff and volunteers no longer allowed to use blue lights and sirens

Volunteers are worried about the potential delays this will cause when they are travelling to incidents.

Image: Irish Coast Guard via Facebook

IRISH COAST GUARD staff and volunteers have been told they are no longer permitted to use blue lights and sirens on vehicles while driving.

In a directive issued to staff, and seen by TheJournal.ie, the Coast Guard told members the risks associated with driving blue light vehicles on public roads “need to be mitigated” for the safety of volunteers and the public. 

Now staff and volunteers are worried about the potential delays this will cause when they are travelling to incidents. There is also concern that they have not been told of any plans to provide training in this area. 

In 2018 Irish Coast Guard volunteer units conducted over 1,100 missions and saved more than 400 lives. The service is responsible for handling maritime emergencies and is called to reports of people in the water, falls on coastal areas as well as threats of self harm, among other incidents. 

The three rescue coordination centres managed 2,650 incidents last year. The helicopter services flew in excess of 670 missions including 119 on behalf of the HSE, more than 100 medical missions from the islands to the mainland and eight long range medical evacuations. Coast Guard vehicles are often used by volunteers who are assisting with these medical missions. 

Irish Coast Guard vehicles are fitted with blue lights and sirens, similar to those on other emergency vehicles across the country. Though drivers were not permitted to use high speeds or break red lights, they were allowed to use the lights and sirens to alert other road users of their presence so they could clear a way through a road. 

In 2015, the Emergency Services Driving Standard (ESDS) initiative – a voluntary code for emergency service drivers, including Coast Guard drivers, which is endorsed by the Road Safety Authority – was developed.

The code has three training levels – only the highest permitting the use of blue lights and sirens. The directive issued to staff and volunteers this month stated that it is “imperative” that the Coast Guard implements this policy, as other emergency organisations have. 

The directive outlined how there is a ‘risk’ associated with not following the policy. It stated that in order to “manage this risk”, drivers are no longer permitted to use blue lights and sirens while driving on public roads. They can however use them when they are parked up.

The directive acknowledges that this is “a significant change” to what staff and volunteers may have been doing on the public roads up until this point. 

Provision of training

Sources told TheJournal.ie the directive has caused controversy in the organisation and volunteers are concerned that they could end up stuck in traffic on the way to life-threatening incidents as other road users will not know to move out of their way. 

One said it will have “a very serious impact on operations”. 

“It’s not about blasting around on lights on sirens, it’s about making progression safely and this will stop units getting to incidents in a timely fashion,” they explained. 

Any unit in an urban area will be severely hampered by this. Response times will be very long with traffic on any sort of decent day or weekend, which is the likely times to get a call. People didn’t join to spend all the time training to sit in traffic and never make it to the scene to actually help the people that are in need.

Sources also pointed out that the directive made no mention of providing training so that this policy could be in-part reversed. 

For years the representative organisations for garda members have been raising similar concerns about the restricted use of blue lights and sirens.

Gardaí are required to complete what is known as CBD2 training, which allows them to pursue vehicles at high speeds as well as the use of lights and sirens. But the numbers of gardaí being trained to this level dropped significantly during recessionary years and has failed to recover. 

A Garda Inspectorate report published just before Christmas found that over 80% of  gardaí are not trained to drive with lights and sirens. 

Source: Garda Inspectorate

Members have said this interferes significantly with their operational duties. In one incident reported by TheJournal.ie, a suspected drink driver was able to evade detection because the garda member driving the patrol car did not have this training.

The first patrol car on the scene of the Regency Hotel shooting in 2016 were also not trained for this driving. Gardaí risk disciplinary action if they breach procedure. 

Similarly, disciplinary action is threatened for any breaches in the use of lights and sirens in procedure documentation for the Irish Coast Guard.

A spokesperson for the Coast Guard said told TheJournal.ie that this latest instruction was issued as “a clarification in relation to the existing position as regards their use while driving on public roads”.

The policy mirrors best practice in other principal emergency services for untrained “blue-light” drivers. This notice in no way impacts on the Coast Guard’s status as a principal emergency service.

The Citizen’s Information Service describes principal emergency services as “the first services to respond to most major services”.

“They are the blue light services that respond to normal emergencies, that is, the Garda Síochána, the Ambulance Service and the Fire Service. A fourth principal emergency service, the Irish Coast Guard, is responsible for handling maritime emergencies in Ireland’s territorial waters, harbours and coastline.”

The department spokesperson said the risks associated with driving blue-light vehicles on public roads have been discussed with volunteers around the coast for some time, including at sectoral meetings and conferences.

“These risks need to be mitigated – particularly in terms of the safety of the volunteers, other road users and members of the public.”

The spokesperson said the issue of training volunteers and full-time staff to drive with blue lights and sirens is being addressed in the Coast Guard’s safety and risk work plan but no date was provided for its completion or the roll-out of training. 

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