Air ambulance service scaled back due to pilot shortage
Coast Guard withdraws in-shore rescue boats due to reported life-jacket malfunction
The Department of Defence acknowledged there had been an issue with retaining pilots.
A shortage of pilots has forced the Air Corps to scale back the emergency air ambulance service it provides to the Health Service Executive (HSE) for the first time since the service commenced eight years ago.
The Emergency Aeromedical Service (EAS) will not operate for an average of one day per week until the end of February.
Cutting back on such a vital service, used to transfer critically ill people who need urgent medical care, is likely to put pressure on the Minister for State for Defence Paul Kehoe TD at a time when numbers in the Defence Forces are continuing to fall.
The Naval Service was forced to dock two vessels earlier this year as personnel shortages began to take their toll.
Fianna Fáil’s spokesman on defence Jack Chambers TD claimed curtailing the helicopter ambulance service would create “a lottery of lives”, adding the staff retention crisis in the Defence Forces was now so acute emergency frontline services were being impacted.
In response to queries, the Department of Defence acknowledged there had been an issue with retaining pilots. However, it said during the 16 days over the winter months on which the Air Corps could not provide the emergency air ambulance service, the Irish Coast Guard would provide reserve cover to the National Ambulance Service.
“This interruption is regrettable but necessary from a safety and governance perspective. The safety of serving personnel, HSE staff and patients is the shared number one priority and our whole focus is returning the Emergency Aeromedical Service to full capacity.”
The Defence Forces cited “personnel retention issues” as the reason for the Air Corps being unable to accept requests for air ambulance services one day per week over the next four months.
The Defence Forces has been losing pilots, and other highly skilled personnel, to the private sector. These personnel undergo years of training in the military and cannot be replaced immediately with new recruits.
The Representative Association of Commissioned Officers (Raco) and PDForra, the organisation representing rank-and-file Defence Forces members, have said remuneration and conditions must be improved.
Senior military personnel who would normally manage the EAS, which operates out of Custume Barracks, Athlone, Co Westmeath, had been stepping in to fly missions to ensure the service was maintained.
However, informed sources said the shortage of pilots had now reached a critical level and senior Defence Forces management had been left with no option but to effectively close the service one day per week.
Last year, the EAS flew 320 missions amounting to a total of 581 hours flight time. This is down from 2017 when it flew 599 hours, and significantly down on 2016 when it flew 848 hours.
Most of the missions in 2018 related to trauma events involving physical injuries such as car crashes (159), while 146 related to other medical emergencies. Fifteen of the missions involved taking children to hospitals for emergency care.
Meanwhile, the Irish Coast Guard has withdrawn its in-shore rescue boats from service because of a reported malfunction with life-jackets.
The announcement, made on Friday, means the inflatable boats have been withdrawn from 23 locations around the country.
In a statement the Irish Coast Guard said it is “actively managing the situation and is liaising closely with all key stakeholders and Search and Rescue (SAR) providers”.
The order means that volunteers at 23 of the service’s 44 stations that are equipped with Delta RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) and smaller D-Class boats, cannot launch for rescue operations until further notice.
In an email sent to unit officers-in-charge (OICs) around the country on Friday afternoon, the Irish Coast Guard said: “An investigation is under way into the recent malfunctioning of Rescue 400 life-jackets. Specifically, the 275N section of the life-jacket failed to fully function when activated.”
The communication added: “In support of the investigation, a risk assessment of this critical piece of PPE (personal protection equipment) has determined that use of Rescue 400 life-jackets is to be suspended with immediate effect. This, in turn, means that all Coast Guard boat operations are also suspended with immediate effect. This includes all training and operations on Coast Guard boats.”