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Coast Guard says it aims to resume cliff training as volunteers express safety concerns

Some volunteers have not done a training exercise in months.

Image: Shutterstock

THE IRISH COAST Guard has said its training needs will be addressed as Ireland remains in Level 5, after volunteers expressed concern about their safety without access to regular training exercises.

Training exercises for units were suspended during all three of the Covid-19 lockdowns, with cliff training only permitted to return at Level 3. The Coast Guard has reduced the number of required exercises to be completed by members of cliff teams in a year to retain eligibility.

Earlier this month, some limited training was allowed to recommence, but cliff units – some of which have members who have not had a training exercise in months – are still not allowed to organise in-person training activities. 

There are 17 cliff teams nationwide and sources have told TheJournal.ie that some members have not trained in six months. 

“The cliff work is very technical, [involving] ropes, knots and equipment and this can be done outdoors so it’s quite Covid-friendly,” one said. “Every other service, whether it’s the Fire Brigade, the Civil Defence or Community First Responders, are all training.

“They’re asking people to go out in the middle of the night to do something they haven’t trained in in six months.”

In June last year, volunteers in cliff rescue teams were issued with a number of additional precautions to take if they were tasked to an incident.

This included the use of masks for both the rescuers and the casualties when they reached them as well as the use of disposable gloves at certain points in the rescue, switching back to cliff gloves at other stages. 

The new procedures also advise the use of hand signals as some members would be unable to communicate effectively verbally or via the radio with their masks on. 

“When you weight up the risks, the risk of Covid – with units split into teams to minimise the impact of an outbreak – is less than if someone makes a mistake on the side of a cliff at 2am because they haven’t trained in a while,” one source said. 

Dermot MacCauley, Officer in Charge of the Greystones unit, one of the busiest cliff rescue teams in the country, told TheJournal.ie that he can understand why some members are unhappy. However he said rescue organisations “have to ensure they can keep the whole thing going”.

“I have 30 people in my unit. If they’re split in two and the first team is training on one week and the second trains on another week, if there’s an outbreak we’re still half the unit down,” he explained.

“When we could do training we took a different approach to keep the risk down, so we had smaller groups training together. We’ve also been able to do a certain amount of it online, as there is quite a lot of theory behind what we do. We haven’t had one case in the unit, which is pretty good for having 30 people. 

“I can see why volunteers are worried about it. We would like to get training going again. I can understand that they have a commitment to keep their skills up, that’s something that is important.”

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Limited boat training was allowed to recommence recently, but MacCauley said he can understand concerns about the resumption of cliff training.

“A lot of it can be done outdoors, but there are some indoor elements as well. People arrive at the stations, some will have their gear in lockers, you have to check in on how many people you have.

“Then, to do cliff training you have to take a vehicle to get there, so you could have people sharing the vehicle who are in close proximity. And even though your activity is outdoors, there are parts of the exercises that involve having people in the team very close together. So there are risks there.”

The Coast Guard has said it will address the training needs of units as Ireland progresses through Level 5, but it has not given a timeline for the resumption of this training.

In a statement to TheJournal.ie, the Department of Transport said: “The resumption of training across all disciplines, including cliff training, within the Coast Guard is a priority.

“To date, units have prioritised remaining available for emergency response however as we progress through this current level 5, the training needs of units including cliff training, will be addressed.”

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