Justine Dwyer

You cannot put a price on life – was the message from members of the plenary district of Waterford City and County Council last week when they called on the government to secure the future of Rescue 117 and maintain a base in Waterford.

The issue topped the agenda at the January Plenary meeting with members describing the possibility that Waterford could lose its helicopter base as catastrophic for the county and the region. The contract for the service is currently out for tender.

Standing Orders were suspended to put the issue first on the agenda for discussion and Cllr. Jim Griffin (SF) stressed it was crucial to get the message across. “I have worked in search and rescue for the past 24 years and work closely with all the bases, including Rescue 117. January 26th I believe is the date that the tendering process will be deliberated on and its crucial we get the message across that Waterford cannot afford this base to close. This can’t happen. “

Cllr Eddie Mulligan (FF), who comes from a maritime background, recalled a time when Waterford didn’t have a rescue service. “I have been heavily involved in many search and rescue operations but prior to any helicopter base being located in Waterford I can remember a time on board the L.E. Eithne  off the South coast of Waterford when a local vessel called The Orchidee was involved in a collision with a French vessel called the Agina. On that occasion one person was rescued and two people were lost. We were at sea en route to that and Ireland had no helicopter to respond to that disaster. At the time we were getting our helicopter on the L.E. Eithne ready to launch, weather conditions were precluding us from launching, we relied on RAF from Wales to send a helicopter. They ditched and another helicopter had to be sent.”

This can’t happen,’ stated Cllr Jim Griffin.

He added that 10 years ago the same debate came up again. “It came down to whether it would be three bases or four bases which was based upon cost. The Government settled on 3.5 bases and the director of the Irish Coastguard had to negotiate, following protests from the people of Waterford that the operators would provide 4 bases for the cost of 3.5 bases. Here in 2021 we should not be in this scenario.”

The calls to Rescue 117 have increased by 25% in the last year, continued Cllr. Mulligan.  “I’m calling on every representative here to contact their parties so that when this goes to tender, it quite clearly stipulates that there will be four bases and one located in Waterford. It is not minutes or hours that matter in a maritime incident – it is seconds as the people on board the Orchidee found out.”

Fine Gael’s Lola O’Sullivan called for a united front and said the service was essential not only for Waterford but for the South-East. “I feel strongly we should write to our colleagues in the South-East region and that we go forward together united.”

Rescue 117 was a regional issue but primarily a safety issue according to Labour’s Thomas Phelan. “The need for Rescue 117 is only going to continue to grow. It’s particularly important to people living on the coastline. We need to speak with one voice. The very notion that this service might not continue in the South-East beggars belief.”

Cllr.Conor McGuinness (SF) said it was essential that we were looking at a four base scenario rather than three. “Because we all know who will lose out. This has to be aimed at the political leadership who ultimately have the final say. It is essential we protect this service and that it is located in Waterford. We have one of the biggest and busiest shipping routes, we are looking at expansion in marine engineering off the south coast. As someone from a fishing background, as someone who has lost loved ones at sea, as someone who has had loved ones rescued, I think this is a service we cannot be without. People depend on it.”

Securing Rescue 117’s future was paramount stated Cllr. John Pratt (Lab) . “Now more than ever, with so many people availing of staycations in the area, it beggars belief that it comes down to cost. You cannot put a cost on life.”

‘You cannot put a cost on life,’ said Cllr John Pratt.

Another sea-faring councillor, Cllr Pat Fitzgerald (SF), said he could not express how comforting it was for anyone working off shore to know that there is air sea rescue close by. “I spent over. 20 years at sea. We have a very busy maritime area in the South-East. It’s imperative that we maintain this service. Especially for the ferries – you can imagine a fire on a ferry – it’s like a block of flats at sea, you could have 1,500 people on them. We absolutely need this service off the South-East coast. As Councillor Mulligan said, seconds makes the difference here. For us to have to fly a chopper from Dublin to the South-East coast, that’s an extra 30 minutes flying time, that’s not good enough. So much can happen in that space of time at sea.”

Mayor of Waterford City & County Council Cllr. Joe Kelly (Ind) stated that the fight can’t be a Waterford effort. “Because it’s not. This has to involve Cork, ourselves, Wexford, some of the inland counties. You can’t have an extra 40, 50 min flying time when someone is desperately waiting to be rescued off a boat, hanging on for dear life. It’s just not acceptable.”

Cllr. James Tobin (FF) congratulated the Oireachtas members, “each and every one of them who have been first up fighting for this. It’s important we support them. At the end of the day they will have the power, they are closest to the Minister and it’s great to see them all speaking with one voice.”

Independent Councillor Mary Roche said losing Rescue 117 didn’t bear thinking about. “That the Government would even consider removing the base from Waterford which is essentially the closest base to what is effectively the busiest T junction in the shipping world, off the Tuskar Rock, would be unconscionable. I remember when this came up before and we fought for it at that stage. I don’t know why we in Waterford have to keep fighting the same fight over and over again.”

“There’s an old saying, if something isn’t broken you don’t try and fix it and that service works very effectively for people of South-East,” stated Fine Gael Councillor Damien Geoghegan. He added it was very comforting to the people of Waterford knowing that R117 was located at the airport. “We are a coastal county. We also have two mountain ranges. I would say to any senior politician that would even consider removing the service from Waterford to go and stand in front of that very beautiful and poignant memorial in Dunmore East that records the losses have been suffered along the South-East coast and then tell the people that the service should be removed. It seems to me, people know the price of everything and the value of nothing. What price do you put on the many, many lives that have been saved over the years?” he concluded.