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'Lives could be lost' without immediate training for Coast Guard blue light driving

Opposition politicians have described the ban on driving with blue lights and sirens as a “backward” move.

Image: Irish Coast Guard via Facebook

THERE HAVE BEEN calls for an immediate roll-out of training for Coast Guard members after the organisation banned the use of blue lights and sirens in vehicles while travelling to incidents. 

TheJournal.ie revealed this morning that a directive issued to staff stated the risks associated with driving blue light vehicles on public roads “need to be mitigated” for the safety of volunteers and the public.

Staff and volunteers were informed that while drivers are no longer permitted to use blue lights and sirens while driving on public roads, they can use them when they are parked up.

Fianna Fáil’s transport spokesperson Robert Troy described the directive as a “backward” move and said it has caused “a lot of concern”.

To denigrate this service in any way flies in the face of the valuable role the Coast Guard provides. A two-tier emergency response service is in nobody’s interest. In the first instance, a plan needs to be put in place immediately for the roll-out of emergency driver training for Coast Guard Volunteers, to restore their full use of emergency lights and sirens.

Troy said this move demonstrates the need for the Coast Guard to be put on a statutory basis.

“Putting the coastguard on a legislative footing would ensure they receive more representation, more recognition, and ultimately the same protections afforded to the other blue light services.

“In June of last year I brought the Irish Coast Guard Authority Bill 2018 before the Dáil. The Bill will create a statutory Irish Coast Guard Authority and in doing so acknowledge the stellar work it already does and will ensure it will continue to be able to do it.”

‘Lives could be lost’

Green Party Senator Grace O’Sullivan, who is a volunteer with Tramore Sea and Cliff Rescue, said she had been speaking to Coast Guard volunteers on the ground.

“This is not good news as far as they’re concerned. It’s top-down bureaucracy that makes no sense when it comes to the day-to-day activities of emergency personnel trying to do their job.”

The Coast Guard HQ are claiming that this is about safety concerns and risks for the drivers and the general public, but if a volunteer is trying to make their way to an emergency situation and is stuck in traffic, lives could be lost.

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. 

‘Risks need to be mitigated’

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.

“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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