09/05/15 Senator Daly speaks to the Seanad and Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport about the Marine Rescue Station

Senator Daly: I thank the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport for coming to the House to take this Commencement matter. As I am sure he is aware, the Valentia marine rescue co-ordination centre is the busiest of our three centres. He may also have received a report on why it should be closed given that every Minister coming to his Department receives a report written by some official in the permanent Government advocating its closure. The issue I raise today concerns the appointment of a resident engineer to the centre. I understand the position was advertised and located in Cork. Malin and Dublin have resident engineers but even though Valentia is busier than those centres its engineer will be located 200 km away from it. The engineer will be responsible for maintaining VHF communications with a considerable number of sites along the Cork and Kerry coastline. The Joint Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport discussed at length an incident that occurred during the last attempt by the Coast Guard Service to close Valentia and move its operations to Dublin. Galley Head communications network was down for six months.Within five days of it being repaired, it was the only receiver station to manage to pick up a distress signal from a ship that went down near Galley Head. The reason we were given for it not having been fixed was that the engineer had been out sick for six months. Yet a piece of infrastructure as vital as that was not repaired. It is hard to understand why the engineer who will be servicing our busiest marine rescue co-ordination centre will be based 200 km away while Malin and Dublin will have theirs on site in residence. Perhaps the Minister might enlighten us as to why Valentia is being discriminated against while Dublin and Malin will have their engineers on site.

Minister Donohue: 

I apologise to the Senator for keeping him waiting and I thank him for raising the matter. The engineering branch of the Irish Coast Guard provides a national maritime safety telecommunications and responder alerting and notification service. This involves the provision of a wide range of diverse but specialised systems. All design, procurement, project management, and subsequent administration and maintenance are carried out in-house by the small number of staff servicing this area.

Due to the large quantity of systems, services and equipment, and the need to replace aged equipment to ensure service availability, the engineering section is undertaking continual programmes of equipment modernisation. The workload has grown considerably in recent years due in no small part to the continual evolution of services that the automatic identification system, AIS, provides and the proliferation of external users, including the Naval Service, the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the North Sea regional server and the Maritime Safety and Security Information System, all of which use the system for the interconnection and exchange of data.

The role of an engineering officer covers a broad range of duties in terms of the management and operation of all technical aspects of the marine communications network. The engineering officer is required to diagnose and maintain a broad range of radio and telecommunications equipment used in maritime communications, responder alert and notification, vessel tracking technologies, and supporting infrastructure, including maintenance of all equipment employed in the national maritime communication networks; fault analysis across multiple wide-area telecommunication networks; identification and analysis of fault trends nationally and by equipment type; maintenance of radio site infrastructure, including antennae, masts, buildings, perimeter and access; maintenance of communications equipment at Coast Guard unit station houses, including equipment in boats and vehicles; co-ordination and management of multiple subcontractor and utility providers; and co-ordination and management of local spares and stock holding.

Additionally – this is an important factor in the requirement to fill the vacancy which arose in the Cork office – the engineering officer is responsible for the maintenance of communications equipment at Coast Guard unit station houses, including equipment in boats and vehicles and the co-ordination and management of multiple subcontractor and utility providers. The engineering officer reports to an electronics officer based in Dublin, who is responsible for the overall management and operation of all technical aspects of the national marine communications network.

Following recent amalgamations, there are currently approximately ten Coast Guard units throughout Cork and five in Kerry. A significant amount of travel throughout the region and out-of-hours availability is a necessary feature of the role. The Cork office continues to provide a good location for the overall fulfilment of the various engineering responsibilities and it is for this reason that the post is located in Cork.

The post became available on foot of the retirement of the previous incumbent. It has taken some time to fill the vacancy due to the need to comply with Department of Public Expenditure and Reform policy in filling public sector vacancies and also due to the requirements of the Public Appointment Service, PAS, recruitment process.The advertisement which issued from the PAS clearly indicated that the position to be filled was in the Cork office. I am happy to say that the recruitment process is now complete. The position has been offered to the successful candidate who is due to commence very shortly in the Cork office where the other Coast Guard staff are located.

Senator Daly: I thank the Minister for his reply. It goes back to the earlier point I made that the engineer is based in Dublin, servicing the marine rescue co-ordination centre there and Malin yet the busiest station is in Valentia and the engineer will be based in Cork, 200 km away. While there are ten Coast Guard units in Cork and five in Kerry the requirement for maintenance of equipment is minimal compared to the important equipment at Valentia. If that equipment or the utilities coming into it suffer a catastrophic failure as stated in one report, prior to the new equipment being installed, nothing else works. If something goes down in Ballycotton, only Ballycotton is out of action; if something goes down in Valentia, everything from Cork to the Aran Islands goes out of action, hence the reason we believe an engineer should be living on the island and working there during the day but also available at short notice. That was the issue raised in Kerry about the position being filled. As the Minister is in the House I avail of the opportunity to congratulate him on his post but also to advise him that the two previous incumbents received reports on the reason Valentia should be closed. There is an agenda within the Department and the Coast Guard to close Valentia. Unfortunately the Oireachtas joint committee had to invite in the senior civil servants from the Department and take apart their reports line by line. When the facts were uncovered it was clear that the reports presented to this and the previous Government were at variance with the truth. When I was younger I watched “Yes Minister” but never thought I would see it in action but I did. If the Minister does have a report perhaps he would ask for the two previous reports and inquire what happened to them when there was an attempt to close the Coast Guard station at Valentia.

Minister Donohue: 

I thank the Senator for his comments. I have only briefly seen “Yes Minister”. I assure the Senator that the environment in which I work does not resemble it in any way. I accept the Senator’s genuine interest in the matter raised. I had the opportunity to visit Valentia and meet the management of the overall Coast Guard service. While there, one of the issues emphasised to me was that the advances that have taken place, following Government investment, mean that if any critical system for any catastrophic reason were not to work the same system and capacity can be deployed via the other two key stations in Malin and Dublin. If for any reason a systems failure were to occur, owing to the investment that has been put in place we have the capacity for the other two key stations to play a role in sustaining safety.

In respect of any reports I have received, I have no such report in front of me. I am aware of the debate that took place in the past in respect of Valentia. I was happy to visit the Coast Guard and see the unit which has been invested in and to attend an event to commemorate the 100 years of service that took place there. I look forward to many more years of service being provided there. I understand where Senator Daly is coming from in respect of the specific point he put to me regarding the location of the engineer. The people who work in this area in my Department – whose only agenda, I assure the Senator, is to work with me to get the best value out of the money that is available to us while at the same time meeting the safety needs on our coasts and in our waters – have been clear that it is important that this person is based in Cork to service the other ten units within the county and region of Cork and to deliver the other needs that I have identified such as maintenance, fault analysis, maintenance of radio site infrastructure and other matters I detailed in my earlier contribution. The location was chosen for those reasons and it is a decision I support, given the expertise that went into making it. However, I will keep the Senator’s broader points in mind in the context of any future decisions or debate on the unit.

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