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Government "Absolutely Committed" to Maintaining Waterford Helicopter Search and Rescue Base

31st May 2022
CHC Ireland winchman Sarah Courtney wearing her National Bravery silver medal awarded for her role in the rescue of seven fishermen off west Cork in March 2021
CHC Ireland winchman Sarah Courtney wearing her National Bravery silver medal awarded for her role in the rescue of seven fishermen off west Cork in March 2021

Minister of State for Transport Hildegarde Naughton said the Government is "absolutely committed" to maintaining a search and rescue base at Waterford when she paid tribute to CHC Ireland air crew for the rescue of seven fishermen off the south-west coast last year.

Winchman Sarah Courtney received a CHC “Excellence Service” award from Irish Coast Guard acting director Eugene Clonan for her role in the saving seven fishermen from the Ellie Ádhamh 70 nautical miles west of Bantry Bay near Bull Rock on March 27th, 2021.

Winchman Sarah Courtney pictured with Minister of State at the Department of Transport Hildegarde Naughton, TD.Winchman Sarah Courtney pictured with Minister of State at the Department of Transport Hildegarde Naughton, TD. Photo: David Clynch

Ms Courtney, from Bishopstown, Co Cork, has already received a silver medal in last year’s national bravery awards, and her colleagues Ronan Flanagan and Adrian O’Hara, from CHC Waterford base, and Aaron Hyland, from CHC Shannon base, were awarded certificates of bravery.

The event last Friday also marked 20 years of CHC Ireland providing helicopter search and rescue services for the Irish Coast Guard from Waterford.

Pilots Ed Shivnen and Neville Murphy pictured with Adrian O'Hara from the Irish Coast Guard, Ray Leahy from the Dara Fitzpatrick Run and Winchman Sarah CourtneyPilots Ed Shivnen and Neville Murphy pictured with Adrian O'Hara from the Irish Coast Guard, Ray Leahy from the Dara Fitzpatrick Run and Winchman Sarah Courtney Photo David Clynch

The Irish Coast Guard’s Waterford helicopter search and rescue base was initiated as a daytime service run by the Air Corps from July 1998, and was upgraded to a 24-hour base from July 1st, 1999.

On the base’s first night mission, all four Air Corps crew on board Rescue 111 – Capt Dave O’Flaherty, Capt Mick Baker, and winch crew Sgt Paddy Mooney and Cpl Niall Byrne - lost their lives when their Dauphin crashed off Tramore on return from a rescue mission.

The late CHC Ireland pilot Capt Dara Fitzpatrick, who died in the Rescue 116 helicopter crash off north Mayo in March 2017, was one of the early senior pilots to work at Waterford after the contract was awarded to the private company.

"We are a team and none of us could do the job we do without all of us working together"

At the presentation to Ms Courtney last week, Robert Tatten of CHC Ireland praised the commitment of CHC crews “to ongoing and continuous training to fine-tune their already immense skills”.

“CHC are proud to play a small part in the greater service provided by the Irish Coast Guard to the people of Ireland,” Mr Tatten said.

“We only get to 20 years in Waterford because of a full team approach, not just us in CHC Ireland but all of those who interact and support us, to name just a few, the Irish Coast Guard, RNLI, Mountain Rescue, Simtech (our training partner), Irish Aviation Authority, An Garda Síochána and all other emergency services,” he said.

Ms Courtney stated “ that she was accepting the award on behalf of all the crew who took part in the mission”.

Winchman Sarah Courtney, the recipient of a 2021 National Bravery Award, who was presented with the CHC Excellence Service Award at Waterford Airport, pictured with Dermot Molloy and Keith Carolan, both from CHC Ireland. The event took place to recognise 20 years of CHC Ireland providing Helicopter Search and Rescue services on behalf of the Irish Coast Guard out of Waterford. - David ClynchWinchman Sarah Courtney pictured with Dermot Molloy and Keith Carolan, both from CHC Ireland Photo: David Clynch

“We are a team and none of us could do the job we do without all of us working together. I was only enabled to carry out the rescue because of the commitment and professionalism of all the guys on board Rescue 117 that day,” she said.

Waterford Airport managing director Aidan Power said that “over the years it has been a matter of great pride to all of us in Waterford Airport that Rescue 117 has been based here”.

“The operation and crews are now part of the fabric of Waterford, and the rescue helicopter is a reassuring sight for the people of the south-east,” Mr Power said.

Acting Irish Coast Guard director Eugene Clonan (acting) presenting the CHC Excellence Service Award to Sarah Courtney. The bog oak sculpture is by Brendan CollumActing Irish Coast Guard director Eugene Clonan (acting) presenting the CHC Excellence Service Award to Sarah Courtney. The bog oak sculpture is by Brendan Collum

In her speech, Ms Naughton said that “at a gathering like this, it would be remiss of me not to recall the loss of R116 in March 2017”.

“I know how devastating it has been for you all to lose colleagues in such a tragic way. The families of Dara Fitzpatrick, Paul Ormsby, Mark Duffy and Ciaran Smith are often in my thoughts as I work alongside the Coast Guard,”she said.

“In July 1999 this area experienced a similar helicopter accident when the four crew of Air Corps Rescue 111 lost their lives on the dunes off Tramore,”Ms Naughton said. “Today we also remember Mick Baker, Paddy Mooney, Dave O’Flaherty and Niall Byrne.” 

“On any given year, CHC Ireland conduct approximately 850 flights on behalf of the Coast Guard,”she continued.

“Government recognises the value of this service, and last July decided that on conclusion of the current contract a new contract should be put in place following an open tendering competition,”she said.

“This procurement process is well underway. It is intended that the contract will include a fixed wing aircraft, thereby enhancing the resilience of the service, enabling the Coast Guard to deliver on its two primary roles of search and rescue and pollution / ship casualty monitoring,”Ms Naughton said. 

From left to right, Rescue 117 senior crewman Neil McAdam, winchman Sarah Courtney and Robert Tatten CHC IrelandFrom left to right, Rescue 117 senior crewman Neil McAdam, winchman Sarah Courtney and Robert Tatten CHC Ireland

Published in Coastguard
Lorna Siggins

About The Author

Lorna Siggins

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Lorna Siggins is a print and radio reporter, and a former Irish Times western correspondent. She is the author of Search and Rescue: True stories of Irish Air-Sea Rescues and the Loss of R116 (2022); Everest Callling (1994) on the first Irish Everest expedition; Mayday! Mayday! (2004); and Once Upon a Time in the West: the Corrib gas controversy (2010). She is also co-producer with Sarah Blake of the Doc on One "Miracle in Galway Bay" which recently won a Celtic Media Award

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The Irish Coast Guard

The Irish Coast Guard is Ireland's fourth 'Blue Light' service (along with An Garda Síochána, the Ambulance Service and the Fire Service). It provides a nationwide maritime emergency organisation as well as a variety of services to shipping and other government agencies.

The purpose of the Irish Coast Guard is to promote safety and security standards, and by doing so, prevent as far as possible, the loss of life at sea, and on inland waters, mountains and caves, and to provide effective emergency response services and to safeguard the quality of the marine environment.

The Irish Coast Guard has responsibility for Ireland's system of marine communications, surveillance and emergency management in Ireland's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and certain inland waterways.

It is responsible for the response to, and co-ordination of, maritime accidents which require search and rescue and counter-pollution and ship casualty operations. It also has responsibility for vessel traffic monitoring.

Operations in respect of maritime security, illegal drug trafficking, illegal migration and fisheries enforcement are co-ordinated by other bodies within the Irish Government.

On average, each year, the Irish Coast Guard is expected to:

  • handle 3,000 marine emergencies
  • assist 4,500 people and save about 200 lives
  • task Coast Guard helicopters on missions

The Coast Guard has been around in some form in Ireland since 1908.

Coast Guard helicopters

The Irish Coast Guard has contracted five medium-lift Sikorsky Search and Rescue helicopters deployed at bases in Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo.

The helicopters are designated wheels up from initial notification in 15 minutes during daylight hours and 45 minutes at night. One aircraft is fitted and its crew trained for under slung cargo operations up to 3000kgs and is available on short notice based at Waterford.

These aircraft respond to emergencies at sea, inland waterways, offshore islands and mountains of Ireland (32 counties).

They can also be used for assistance in flooding, major inland emergencies, intra-hospital transfers, pollution, and aerial surveillance during daylight hours, lifting and passenger operations and other operations as authorised by the Coast Guard within appropriate regulations.

Irish Coastguard FAQs

The Irish Coast Guard provides nationwide maritime emergency response, while also promoting safety and security standards. It aims to prevent the loss of life at sea, on inland waters, on mountains and in caves; and to safeguard the quality of the marine environment.

The main role of the Irish Coast Guard is to rescue people from danger at sea or on land, to organise immediate medical transport and to assist boats and ships within the country's jurisdiction. It has three marine rescue centres in Dublin, Malin Head, Co Donegal, and Valentia Island, Co Kerry. The Dublin National Maritime Operations centre provides marine search and rescue responses and coordinates the response to marine casualty incidents with the Irish exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Yes, effectively, it is the fourth "blue light" service. The Marine Rescue Sub-Centre (MRSC) Valentia is the contact point for the coastal area between Ballycotton, Co Cork and Clifden, Co Galway. At the same time, the MRSC Malin Head covers the area between Clifden and Lough Foyle. Marine Rescue Co-ordination Centre (MRCC) Dublin covers Carlingford Lough, Co Louth to Ballycotton, Co Cork. Each MRCC/MRSC also broadcasts maritime safety information on VHF and MF radio, including navigational and gale warnings, shipping forecasts, local inshore forecasts, strong wind warnings and small craft warnings.

The Irish Coast Guard handles about 3,000 marine emergencies annually, and assists 4,500 people - saving an estimated 200 lives, according to the Department of Transport. In 2016, Irish Coast Guard helicopters completed 1,000 missions in a single year for the first time.

Yes, Irish Coast Guard helicopters evacuate medical patients from offshore islands to hospital on average about 100 times a year. In September 2017, the Department of Health announced that search and rescue pilots who work 24-hour duties would not be expected to perform any inter-hospital patient transfers. The Air Corps flies the Emergency Aeromedical Service, established in 2012 and using an AW139 twin-engine helicopter. Known by its call sign "Air Corps 112", it airlifted its 3,000th patient in autumn 2020.

The Irish Coast Guard works closely with the British Maritime and Coastguard Agency, which is responsible for the Northern Irish coast.

The Irish Coast Guard is a State-funded service, with both paid management personnel and volunteers, and is under the auspices of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport. It is allocated approximately 74 million euro annually in funding, some 85 per cent of which pays for a helicopter contract that costs 60 million euro annually. The overall funding figure is "variable", an Oireachtas committee was told in 2019. Other significant expenditure items include volunteer training exercises, equipment, maintenance, renewal, and information technology.

The Irish Coast Guard has four search and rescue helicopter bases at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo, run on a contract worth 50 million euro annually with an additional 10 million euro in costs by CHC Ireland. It provides five medium-lift Sikorsky S-92 helicopters and trained crew. The 44 Irish Coast Guard coastal units with 1,000 volunteers are classed as onshore search units, with 23 of the 44 units having rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) and 17 units having cliff rescue capability. The Irish Coast Guard has 60 buildings in total around the coast, and units have search vehicles fitted with blue lights, all-terrain vehicles or quads, first aid equipment, generators and area lighting, search equipment, marine radios, pyrotechnics and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). The Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI) and Community Rescue Boats Ireland also provide lifeboats and crews to assist in search and rescue. The Irish Coast Guard works closely with the Garda Siochána, National Ambulance Service, Naval Service and Air Corps, Civil Defence, while fishing vessels, ships and other craft at sea offer assistance in search operations.

The helicopters are designated as airborne from initial notification in 15 minutes during daylight hours, and 45 minutes at night. The aircraft respond to emergencies at sea, on inland waterways, offshore islands and mountains and cover the 32 counties. They can also assist in flooding, major inland emergencies, intra-hospital transfers, pollution, and can transport offshore firefighters and ambulance teams. The Irish Coast Guard volunteers units are expected to achieve a 90 per cent response time of departing from the station house in ten minutes from notification during daylight and 20 minutes at night. They are also expected to achieve a 90 per cent response time to the scene of the incident in less than 60 minutes from notification by day and 75 minutes at night, subject to geographical limitations.

Units are managed by an officer-in-charge (three stripes on the uniform) and a deputy officer in charge (two stripes). Each team is trained in search skills, first aid, setting up helicopter landing sites and a range of maritime skills, while certain units are also trained in cliff rescue.

Volunteers receive an allowance for time spent on exercises and call-outs. What is the difference between the Irish Coast Guard and the RNLI? The RNLI is a registered charity which has been saving lives at sea since 1824, and runs a 24/7 volunteer lifeboat service around the British and Irish coasts. It is a declared asset of the British Maritime and Coast Guard Agency and the Irish Coast Guard. Community Rescue Boats Ireland is a community rescue network of volunteers under the auspices of Water Safety Ireland.

No, it does not charge for rescue and nor do the RNLI or Community Rescue Boats Ireland.

The marine rescue centres maintain 19 VHF voice and DSC radio sites around the Irish coastline and a digital paging system. There are two VHF repeater test sites, four MF radio sites and two NAVTEX transmitter sites. Does Ireland have a national search and rescue plan? The first national search and rescue plan was published in July, 2019. It establishes the national framework for the overall development, deployment and improvement of search and rescue services within the Irish Search and Rescue Region and to meet domestic and international commitments. The purpose of the national search and rescue plan is to promote a planned and nationally coordinated search and rescue response to persons in distress at sea, in the air or on land.

Yes, the Irish Coast Guard is responsible for responding to spills of oil and other hazardous substances with the Irish pollution responsibility zone, along with providing an effective response to marine casualties and monitoring or intervening in marine salvage operations. It provides and maintains a 24-hour marine pollution notification at the three marine rescue centres. It coordinates exercises and tests of national and local pollution response plans.

The first Irish Coast Guard volunteer to die on duty was Caitriona Lucas, a highly trained member of the Doolin Coast Guard unit, while assisting in a search for a missing man by the Kilkee unit in September 2016. Six months later, four Irish Coast Guard helicopter crew – Dara Fitzpatrick, Mark Duffy, Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith -died when their Sikorsky S-92 struck Blackrock island off the Mayo coast on March 14, 2017. The Dublin-based Rescue 116 crew were providing "top cover" or communications for a medical emergency off the west coast and had been approaching Blacksod to refuel. Up until the five fatalities, the Irish Coast Guard recorded that more than a million "man hours" had been spent on more than 30,000 rescue missions since 1991.

Several investigations were initiated into each incident. The Marine Casualty Investigation Board was critical of the Irish Coast Guard in its final report into the death of Caitriona Lucas, while a separate Health and Safety Authority investigation has been completed, but not published. The Air Accident Investigation Unit final report into the Rescue 116 helicopter crash has not yet been published.

The Irish Coast Guard in its present form dates back to 1991, when the Irish Marine Emergency Service was formed after a campaign initiated by Dr Joan McGinley to improve air/sea rescue services on the west Irish coast. Before Irish independence, the British Admiralty was responsible for a Coast Guard (formerly the Water Guard or Preventative Boat Service) dating back to 1809. The West Coast Search and Rescue Action Committee was initiated with a public meeting in Killybegs, Co Donegal, in 1988 and the group was so effective that a Government report was commissioned, which recommended setting up a new division of the Department of the Marine to run the Marine Rescue Co-Ordination Centre (MRCC), then based at Shannon, along with the existing coast radio service, and coast and cliff rescue. A medium-range helicopter base was established at Shannon within two years. Initially, the base was served by the Air Corps.

The first director of what was then IMES was Capt Liam Kirwan, who had spent 20 years at sea and latterly worked with the Marine Survey Office. Capt Kirwan transformed a poorly funded voluntary coast and cliff rescue service into a trained network of cliff and sea rescue units – largely voluntary, but with paid management. The MRCC was relocated from Shannon to an IMES headquarters at the then Department of the Marine (now Department of Transport) in Leeson Lane, Dublin. The coast radio stations at Valentia, Co Kerry, and Malin Head, Co Donegal, became marine rescue-sub-centres.

The current director is Chris Reynolds, who has been in place since August 2007 and was formerly with the Naval Service. He has been seconded to the head of mission with the EUCAP Somalia - which has a mandate to enhance Somalia's maritime civilian law enforcement capacity – since January 2019.

  • Achill, Co. Mayo
  • Ardmore, Co. Waterford
  • Arklow, Co. Wicklow
  • Ballybunion, Co. Kerry
  • Ballycotton, Co. Cork
  • Ballyglass, Co. Mayo
  • Bonmahon, Co. Waterford
  • Bunbeg, Co. Donegal
  • Carnsore, Co. Wexford
  • Castlefreake, Co. Cork
  • Castletownbere, Co. Cork
  • Cleggan, Co. Galway
  • Clogherhead, Co. Louth
  • Costelloe Bay, Co. Galway
  • Courtown, Co. Wexford
  • Crosshaven, Co. Cork
  • Curracloe, Co. Wexford
  • Dingle, Co. Kerry
  • Doolin, Co. Clare
  • Drogheda, Co. Louth
  • Dun Laoghaire, Co. Dublin
  • Dunmore East, Co. Waterford
  • Fethard, Co. Wexford
  • Glandore, Co. Cork
  • Glenderry, Co. Kerry
  • Goleen, Co. Cork
  • Greencastle, Co. Donegal
  • Greenore, Co. Louth
  • Greystones, Co. Wicklow
  • Guileen, Co. Cork
  • Howth, Co. Dublin
  • Kilkee, Co. Clare
  • Killala, Co. Mayo
  • Killybegs, Co. Donegal
  • Kilmore Quay, Co. Wexford
  • Knightstown, Co. Kerry
  • Mulroy, Co. Donegal
  • North Aran, Co. Galway
  • Old Head Of Kinsale, Co. Cork
  • Oysterhaven, Co. Cork
  • Rosslare, Co. Wexford
  • Seven Heads, Co. Cork
  • Skerries, Co. Dublin Summercove, Co. Cork
  • Toe Head, Co. Cork
  • Tory Island, Co. Donegal
  • Tramore, Co. Waterford
  • Waterville, Co. Kerry
  • Westport, Co. Mayo
  • Wicklow
  • Youghal, Co. Cork

Sources: Department of Transport © Afloat 2020

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