Minister of State at the Department of Health, Finian McGrath, told the Seanad this week that careful consideration needs to be given on whether a full-time air ambulance based out of Custume Barracks is the best use of limited resources.
Minister McGrath was responding to calls for an extension of the current service to include night-time flying.
Senator Frank Feighan said that since it came into operation five years ago, the service has played a key role in providing critical air support options in response to major emergencies, not least in the catchment area of Roscommon hospital.
In reply, Minister McGrath praised the air ambulance service. He noted that his colleague, Minister of State Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran, has made the expansion of the service a priority issue in the Programme for Government, and that “he is pushing this issue very hard”. However, he also highlighted the safety issues that night-time flying carries.
“All the risks associated with landing and departures are magnified at night,” he said. “Such risks include low visibility and crew fatigue. There are also restrictions on helicopters landing at night-time in Ireland, and landings can take place only on a lit helipad or at an airport.
“These restrictions would significantly reduce the number of emergency incidents that the service could respond to, and it is possible that most night-time calls would, in view of the risks involved, be better served by a land vehicle.
“Of course, significant additional capacity in terms of Air Corps personnel and national ambulance service paramedical staff would be required to extend the EAS to a 24-hour service. The Air Corps is faced with challenges in the recruitment and retention of personnel. In that context, and in light of the fact that ambulance activity drops significantly at night, the Department will need to consider if a 24-hour service would be the best use of limited resources.”
Minister McGrath said The Irish Coast Guard operates on a 24-7 basis from its four bases at Dublin, Waterford, Shannon, and Sligo, and that where necessary and appropriate it can be tasked by the National Ambulance Service.