Morale among volunteers in the Irish Coast Guard is currently at an "all time low", in part due to increasing "red tape" and the handling of disciplinary proceedings against members, an Oireachtas committee has heard.
The Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association told the Oireachtas committee on transport that many search and rescue units were at half strength due to internal tensions in the organisation.
The group said many volunteers felt they had been unfairly targeted by Coast Guard management under the organisation’s disciplinary procedures, which had led to many senior volunteers resigning or being dismissed.
John O'Mahony, former deputy officer of the Toehead/Glandore unit in Co Cork, said tensions between volunteers and management had been growing for several years.
Bernard Lucas, a volunteer from the Doolin unit whose wife Caitríona Lucas died off the coast of Co Clare after an inflatable boat capsized during a search mission in 2016, said volunteers were frustrated by "red tape gone way overboard".
In an incident in recent days Mr Lucas said Coast Guard volunteers were prevented from helping someone who had fallen and injured themselves on a pathway on the Cliffs of Moher.
Volunteers on the scene could not climb over a fence to help the casualty, as they were prohibited from operating on sections of the cliffs deemed unsafe.
Instead the volunteers had to wait for Fire Brigade units who were allowed to access the area to help the casualty, he said.
“This person was just literally there roaring in pain … three volunteers turned up from Doolin and there was nothing they could do,” he told the committee. Mr Lucas said the incident showed the shortcomings of volunteers being bound to guidelines “drawn up in an office for every scenario”.
Another officer, Vince Farr, said the volunteers “would have been better off taking off the Coast Guard jacket and acting as a good samaritan … But because the culture is instilled that they’ll be punished for doing this they’re afraid”.
Jim Griffin, a former officer in Dunmore East, Co Waterford, told the committee "morale is at an all time low" in the Coast Guard, with many units "limping along" at present.
Appearing later before the committee, Michael Murray, from the organisation’s official members representative body the Coastal Unit Advisory Group (CUAG), said fresh terms had been agreed with Coast Guard management in recent days which aim to address many concerns.
He said the terms of reference for volunteers have been reviewed as part of recommendations made in a report conducted by Kieran Mulvey following the collapse of the Doolin Coast Guard last year, which advised that CUAG should have its role extended and enhanced.
Mr Murray stressed that CUAG can “perform all the functions that are necessary” to represent volunteers as it has “more power” under the new terms.
One change highlighted will allow a volunteer facing disciplinary procedures to receive the assistance of a HR professional, as that role is outside CUAG’s remit.