Troubled waters: Tensions in Irish Coast Guard

Friction over disciplinary actions taken against volunteers, and view management is too risk averse

Jim Griffin from Dunmore East, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

Jim Griffin from Dunmore East, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne

 

A number of former and current Irish Coast Guard officers have criticised the poor treatment of volunteers by the organisation’s management, amid growing internal tensions.

Interviews with more than a dozen serving and former senior volunteers paint a picture of friction and strain within the Coast Guard, in particular over disciplinary actions taken against volunteers, and also criticism that the organisation’s management has become too risk averse.

Following controversies that have shaken it in recent years, such as the death of volunteer Caitríona Lucas in September 2016, the Coast Guard had been on a journey of reform.

In attempting to introduce a new safety-first culture, management has come into conflict with a number of senior volunteers, who feel the organisation’s priority has shifted away from rescue missions and saving lives.

Jim Griffin

There is a wall in Jim Griffin’s sitting room in Brownstown Head that stands bare. Where once it was adorned with medals and recognition from the State, it is now empty. After decades volunteering with the Coast Guard, he was dismissed following an internal disciplinary process, the outcome of which he contests.

For Griffin, a native of Co Waterford, one of those accolades stands out. He received a ministerial Letter of Meritorious Service for rescuing seven members of the same family who had been isolated by the tide at Tramore’s back strand in the summer of 2013. With a rescue helicopter hindered by severe fog and fearing the family were about to be cut off the stretch of land, Griffin set off and carried each person to safety.

“After what happened, I had to take them down,” the 56-year-old tells The Irish Times, nodding towards the bare wall at his home.

“It saddens me to think that members who volunteer decades of their life to Coast Guard, who put their own lives at risk often in severe weather conditions and precarious situations, can be cast aside.”

After a lengthy internal disciplinary process, over a failure to follow proper procedure during a training exercise, he was stripped of his officer role. He was initially to be allowed return as a volunteer, until that too was blocked in late 2019.

Griffin, and a number of other former volunteers, allege they were subject to unfair disciplinary actions, and were targeted by the organisation’s headquarters. In interviews with The Irish Times, several current and former volunteers criticised disciplinary inquiries in recent years against senior officers as disproportionate.

Griffin joined in 1998 and found he “excelled’’ in the Coast Guard, becoming an officer in charge (OIC) for the Dunmore East unit in 2006. Problems arose as time went on, after he and other OICs began to become more “vocal” about safety concerns from 2014, which he feels led to him being “targeted by headquarters”.

Griffin, a Sinn Féin councillor in Waterford since 2014, says his political involvement was also increasingly referred to in his Coast Guard role, alleging that friends had reported to him that others had referred to him as “that f**king Shinner”.

Some Coast Guard members became particularly vocal following separate incidents which shook the organisation. In September 2016, Caitríona Lucas died off the coast of Co Clare after an inflatable boat capsized during a search mission. She was found lying face down in the water with her lifejacket not inflated, and a subsequent Marine Casualty Investigation Board report into her death was critical of safety management systems.

Then, in March 2017, helicopter team Rescue 116 crashed into the sea off Co Mayo, the four crew dying as a result.

Griffin and other volunteers felt strongly that question marks remained over these incidents, and increasingly raised concerns about safety issues, at seminars for officers and elsewhere.

He faced a disciplinary investigation following a rescue demonstration at Helvick Head, near Dungarvan, on a hot June day in 2018, over the number of people in a boat and the use of personal protective gear.

Due to the weather, he says permission had been given by a senior Coast Guard official present to allow them to remove their gear, and he has insisted the charge over the number of crew in the boat was unfair.

“I was accused of having too few people on the boat because we had three crew, but that vessel we were using that day allowed for a minimum of three, not four as with other boats,” he says.

Despite contesting the matter and offering explanations he says the inquiry found he had contravened boat operations procedure by not having the correct number onboard, and by not wearing proper safety gear during the exercise. He was dismissed in late 2019, “despite having served the organisation with distinction for over 20 years”.

“I believe I was targeted by Coast Guard management who sought to remove myself and other volunteer officers in charge around the country in recent years,” he said.

He believed he would be allowed to continue as a normal volunteer, but this was blocked. Griffin discovered this was due to the findings against him, that he had contravened safety measures in the operation of the boat. He was devastated.

Eugene Clonan, acting Coast Guard director, rejected claims that volunteers had been targeted, or subjected to unfair disciplinary inquiries.

Following the tragedies in Mayo and Clare, the organisation had set about introducing a new “safety management system”, that includes more checks and new safety protocols, which had caused tensions with some volunteers, he said.

“If we send out five people, and we bring five people back in the unit that’s a success, if we rescue the person that’s even better. We’re not in the business of putting people into harm’s way,” he said.

John O’Mahony, formerly a deputy OIC of the Toehead/Glandore Coast Guard unit: ‘Volunteers had become “exhausted”, and those who complained were deemed termed “troublesome”. Photograph: Andy Gibson.
John O’Mahony, formerly a deputy OIC of the Toehead/Glandore Coast Guard unit: ‘Volunteers had become “exhausted”, and those who complained were deemed termed “troublesome”. Photograph: Andy Gibson.

Griffin is far from the only member of the organisation’s old guard who has clashed with management over the changes.

Mike Lee, an OIC of the Youghal unit, Co Cork, for 10 years, resigned from his position in January 2019, because of what he claimed was the poor treatment of volunteers in recent years. In his resignation letter, Lee wrote: “I feel I can no longer serve an organisation that values its volunteers so poorly.”

The senior volunteer said changes from management had been “frustrating and extremely disconcerting”. The increased burden placed on officers under the new reforms were “untenable”, he wrote.

Lee said he hoped the changes “have not heralded the death knell of the volunteer [role] within the organisation”.

Another senior volunteer, Sean McHale, OIC for Killala Bay, Co Mayo, resigned after an investigation found against him for not carrying out a full safety check, ahead of a callout to a small fishing punt which was in difficulty one night. He argues that the checks were minor and the unit had to act quickly, as it had learned that the fisherman’s sons were set to try to rescue him themselves.

McHale, who had over two decades’ experience and had received recognition for his life-saving skills, was found not to have adhered correctly to personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements and Covid-19 procedures, and to not having handheld radios and GPS for the operation. “I felt we had to act quickly to ensure we didn’t have a tragedy on our hands,” he said.

His July 30th, 2020, resignation letter criticised the “mishandling” of the disciplinary investigation, and said recent changes had “decimated” his local unit.

“I know that since the events of last summer, a further half dozen members of the Killala unit have also left and the unit is rarely used for callouts since. A number of volunteers who gave years, decades even, to the Coast Guard have been left feeling disgusted at how the organisation treats some members,” he wrote.

John O’Mahony, formerly a deputy OIC of the Toehead/Glandore unit in Co Cork, was also subject to an internal disciplinary process, which found against him at the end of July. The finding followed disputes which arose after local units were amalgamated in 2014, partly as a cost-saving measure.

Volunteers had become “exhausted”, and those who complained were deemed termed “troublesome,” he told the Irish Times.

In another recent disciplinary case, a sanction terminating a volunteer’s membership was overturned on appeal. The day after the appeal ruling, the Coast Guard initiated a fresh disciplinary process against the same volunteer.

Another officer was dismissed in 2016 after more than 10 years as an OIC, and is taking a legal case against the organisation.

In the past three years, the Coast Guard has spent nearly €140,000 on consultants to assist in training, conflict resolution, and meditation support, in part arising from the disciplinary actions. The sums paid to the consultancy firm, Graphite HRM Ltd, between 2018 and 2020 were released under the Freedom of Information Act.

Last month, some current and former members set up a group, the Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association, which aims to represent past and current volunteers and assist with conflict resolution. John O’Mahony is its chairman; Jim Griffin is secretary.

Meanwhile several Irish Coast Guard staff have also expressed concerns over alleged bullying at work, with a number of the headquarters staff understood to be considering filing formal grievances through their union.

Culture

Clonan denied there was any culture of bullying or harassment of volunteers or staff, in an interview with The Irish Times. There was an appeals process for any volunteer who felt they had been subject to unfair disciplinary process, the acting Coast Guard director said.

“If you’re going to sign up and do what we want you to do, and give your time for the community and search and rescue, there’s certain things you need to abide by,” he said.

“That doesn’t mean you can get into a boat without PPE and feck off, that doesn’t mean you can take a boat and go wherever you want,” he said.

“We are not about best mates here, we’re about trying to run an organisation … If you’re going to make an omelette, you’ve to crack a few eggs,” he said.

There was “a silent majority” among the 1,000 volunteers who supported the changes, he said. Clonan, who previously served in the Navy for 18 years, said that while rewriting policies was straightforward, shifting culture was the hard part.

Some volunteers feel the organisation has become overly risk-averse.

Internal criticism, bubbling under the surface in recent years, has become more strident of late. In an April 9th letter to members, Clonan hit out at those criticising management, adding that commentary had “reached a new low and is not acceptable”.

Social media posts and anonymous emails targeting staff had become “personal in nature”, he wrote.

Earlier this year the Coast Guard’s decision to temporarily stand down its cliff rescue teams caused significant backlash. The decision was taken in early March, citing safety concerns following a risk assessment. Concerns related to the introduction of new equipment and gear, which led management to decide training needed to be updated across the teams.

Volunteers involved with cliff teams openly expressed frustrations, in an internal online meeting with management on March 22nd. One said there was a “huge amount of frustration” among grassroots members over the decision, according to audio of the meeting. Several members expressed safety concerns over the potential lack of rescue cover, at a time when good weather meant more people would be out walking near cliffs.

One volunteer on the call told management he feared standing down the teams could “leave people to fall off a cliff, leave them to die”. Coast Guard management was not appreciating “the seriousness of the situation”, he told the online meeting.

Clonan said the safety concerns with the cliff teams did not arise from one major red flag or incident, but rather “death of a thousand cuts”.

Standing the teams down had not meant people would be put in harm’s way, if there was a cliff team capable of saving them, and no other rescue agency available, Clonan said.

After a blitz of training and replacing equipment, cliff rescue teams have been allowed return to duty, with all teams now back in action.

It is not the first time management has received backlash over decisions to curtail rescue services.

In late 2019, in-shore rescue boats were stood down due to a suspected malfunction with lifejackets, following a report one had failed to inflate. The decision affected 23 of the 44 stations across the country, and meant boat and rescue operations were temporarily halted, due to concerns around Rescue 400 lifejackets.

The lifejackets were sent to an independent firm in the UK to be tested, where the equipment passed the test. Management then faced a problem where, despite passing the test, there was a loss of confidence among members in the equipment.

“In the heel of the hunt, the life jackets were nearly at the end of their life anyhow, so we replaced all of the lifejackets,” Clonan said.

Several sources, both senior volunteers and staff, expressed the view that the suspension of in-shore rescue over the lifejacket issue had been a knee-jerk reaction.

The Coast Guard has also been involved in disputes with some of its major suppliers, leading one company to stop doing business with the organisation.

The fallout involved Stormtec, a large Irish supplier of lifejackets and all-terrain vehicles.

In a December 2nd, 2019 letter to the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG), Stormtec director Conor Gribbon sharply criticised the “unprofessional behaviour” of the organisation. The supplier had received correspondence from the Coast Guard earlier that year seeking repayment of more than €240,000, due to alleged overcharging.

Gribbon said the company “very quickly responded showing that the conclusion and demand was wrong, and we provided evidence that we had acted under the instructions of IRCG managers at all times and only charged the agreed amount”.

He said the organisation had “slandered” the company, and “blacklisted” it from further business, “without a single shred of evidence being found against us”. The company did not wish to comment when contacted by The Irish Times.

Following its own review of the matter, Stormtec said it believed the Coast Guard in fact owed it more than €50,000, from an outstanding debt dating back over two years.

Gribbons said the company had decided to cease supplying the Coast Guard “any further services or equipment”, over the dispute.

Clonan said the dispute with Stormtec came to a head during an overhaul of procurement policy, admitting “our documentation was poor” in the past. The issue had been a “misunderstanding” and, following clarification, the Coast Guard had made a payment to Stormtec, which he said resolved the matter.

“Now the situation has been clarified with the firm and corrected, to both our sides’ satisfaction,” he said.