Seanad Debate - 1st July 2010
Marine Rescue Service
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I googled the coastguard in Malin Head and came up with an article, headed, “Is this the most famous radio station in the world?”. It was not about the radio station but rather the wireless room associated with the Titanic. Part of the reason that Malin Head was involved in that was that the Marconi equipment was delivered to the Titanic in time for the sea trials on 2 April 1912, prior to its maiden voyage. The article said:
Phillips and Bride spent the day completing the installation and adjusting the equipment. They exchanged test calls with coast stations at Malin Head (North coast of Ireland), callsign MH and Liverpool (actually known as “Seaforth”) , callsign LV.
I cite this as a prelude to the fact that this is a very important location for me, my constituents and the country. The coastguard station has been there for well over 100 years. Malin Head coastguard station was as good as closed after the Feron report of 2007 but with the help of the local community expertise and pressure, the commitment and knowledge of the staff at the station, and working with our Valencia colleagues and the people of Kerry, the report was factually undermined. At a transport committee meeting the assistant secretary of the Department, Mr. John Feron, could not credibly defend the report he had signed off on.
After a long battle the then Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, announced that the Government, having considered the matter fully and taken into account the various views expressed, had decided to retain the present configuration for the delivery of the marine rescue co-ordination. That was based on the marine rescue co-ordination centre in Dublin and two sub-centres, at Malin and Valentia.
The need to urgently upgrade the existing equipment was recognised and the purchase of three integrated communication systems, ICS, cores at a cost of approximately €2.5 million was approved. One was to be located at each centre. Tendering procedures for the necessary radio equipment was at an advanced stage and delivery and installation of the first ICS core in Dublin was to be in late 2009 with work at Malin and Valentia to commence in 2010. This phasing was to ensure that full national coverage was maintained while development work took place.
Each of the two ICSs outside Dublin were to be linked to a range of coastguard remote aerial sites which would ensure the capacity to retain full national coverage should one of the centres go offline. This decision meant that the capacity and flexibility of the national maritime and rescue communications system would be considerably enhanced, thus supporting the ongoing development of maritime safety services across the island of Ireland.
The Irish coastguard station in Malin Head receives and co-ordinates responses to emergency calls. It monitors radio traffic, answers 999 and mayday calls. It assesses the situation and co-ordinates others where an on-the-scene response is being provided. The station has been extremely busy even in recent weeks - with five call-outs in one day recently - and I commend the staff for their work. We have had much comfort from the fact that the “localness” of the service, it is believed, led to the recovery of the bodies of fishermen who died recently. For the families involved it was a great comfort that the radio station was there. I know this might not equate with the technical argument that experts might make to the effect that this could happen anywhere where such a facility was located.
I condemn those who make hoax calls. Those who risk their lives on the seas or in any emergency service do so for a greater good and the fact that others are prepared to abuse emergency services, and thereby possibly prevent a genuine emergency from being responded to, is deplorable. Malin Head and Valentia are marine rescue sub-centres, each with delegated authority from the MRCC since 2001 to co-ordinate a response to search and rescue incidents in their areas of responsibility. The criteria for who can work there has improved to facilitate fishermen to be given recognition for their work and experience on the water to count towards their being able to qualify for this type of diversification of employment. This has been important in my area, with the loss of jobs in the fishing sector.
Given these types of good news developments in recent years and the wonderful service provided within the meteorological station and the coastguard, I ask, “Where stands the promised upgrading of the facilities as well as the technology in Malin Head?” There had been plans for upgrading the facility in 2003, to employ nine further staff. These plans were to be finalised in 2005 and implemented in 2007 before the threat of closure was mooted.
Many years on now we have had a major investment in the centre here in Dublin,and a welcome commitment to maintaining the centres in Malin Head and Valencia. I know the Minister of State does not have direct responsibility in this area, but I hope she has a very positive answer on where we stand now on the technological and infrastructural supports.
Deputy Mary Alexandra White: On behalf of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, I am pleased to have this opportunity to provide an up to date position on the development of the marine rescue sub co-ordination centre, in Malin Head.
Following on from a Government decision in November 2008, the Irish Coast Guard engaged with the Office of Public Works on the installation of the new technology integrated communications system at the marine rescue co-ordination centre in Dublin, and the marine rescue sub-centres at Malin Head and on Valentia island.
The Office of Public Works site investigations at Malin Head have confirmed that the current buildings, operations room and ancillary spaces do not provide adequacy in terms of space, capacity and facilities for four 24-hour operator positions, as envisaged. A four-operator set up is desirable for the long-term delivery of the search and rescue service. To extend the current building would create a number of difficulties as it is situated beside the aerials earth mat, which should not be built on, and any major refurbishment would entail a lengthy transfer of operations to Dublin’s marine rescue co-ordination centre. A new building is therefore the preferred medium-term solution, which will entail a development time of about three years from the start of planning
Therefore, to activate the new equipment quickly and provide some additional capacity for the national maritime communications network, the ICS hardware will be installed in a nearby site in Crockalough by the end of 2010 and will be remotely linked to the current three-operator centre in Malin Head co-ordination centre. Malin Head will be required to close for a short period while the equipment is migrated to new technology in the first half of 2011.
Working parallel to this development the Department of Transport and the OPW will work towards the construction of the proposed new centre adjacent to the current co-ordination centre, depending on funding and planning permission. It is intended that Malin Head will continue operations throughout the build phase and that 24-hour operations will thereafter transfer to the new building with no interruption of service.
Senator Cecilia Keaveney: I am glad there seems to be progress in having the communications infrastructure there, and I have to conclude that there is now an intention to fastrack the building. I note the words on to funding, but the most important aspect of the Minister of State’s answer is that there will be a commitment to Malin Head and the people employed there. Regardless of whether the physical infrastructure is closed for a short period there will be no downgrading of the personnel employed there at the moment. That is the first thing that is obvious from the Minister of State’s speech, to my mind.
I welcome the introduction of new technology and establishment of a better service at the station. Will the Minister of State confirm that the current staff will not be affected by any closure in 2011?
Deputy Mary Alexandra White: I will bring back those concerns to the relevant Minister. On the whole, this is good news and we will see how we can protect the current staff.
The Seanad adjourned at 6.30 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 2 July 2010.