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Conor McGrath, a former member of Doolin Coastguard: "The ability to train and respond was greatly reduced to such an extent I felt it wasn’t feasible to work in the unit. It is a huge loss to the community and people that the service we had is gone,” Photograph by John Kelly

Alleged failures of coast guard HQ led to Doolin unit’s collapse

THE alleged failure of Irish Coast Guard management to resolve practical issues hampering the work of Doolin volunteers prompted the first resignation of one of its longest serving members.

Conor McGrath has spoken publicly for the first time about the reasons why he was forced to quit the service after 31 years through sheer frustration over inaction to resolve five key issues.

In an exclusive interview with the Clare Champion, Mr McGrath recalled how he resigned shortly after writing his resignation letter on October 28, and this was followed by the departure of another five members within a few days.

While local management was supportive, the Doolin resident, who is regarded as one of the best rock and sea cave climbers in the country, alleged national management was “disruptive”.

“One of our team members Caitríona Lucas was killed in Kilkee and there was the helicopter crash. There was a lot of oversight and criticism of management.

“I think they had a knee jerk reaction and decided if you do nothing there will not be a problem. I said this is not acceptable to me while I was volunteering my skills and my time.

“I quit and that started a snowball effect. I felt things were not working and management was disruptive. We spent the last six years complaining, I said I have enough, I am gone.

“The ability to train and respond was greatly reduced to such an extent I felt it wasn’t feasible to work in the unit. It is a huge loss to the community and people that the service we had is gone,” he said.

Even though volunteers are required to respond quickly to a call out, he recalled one of the doors in the €1.9 million Doolin Coast Guard Station didn’t open for about three years.

“The door on the right hand side of the building was cannibalised to get the other two working. It was like a game of chess to move boats and vehicles to get out of one door. If it was in a fire station, would they put up with it?,” he asked.

During Bank Holiday weekends, he recalled local management would ring volunteers to get boats out of the station because “you couldn’t get them out in hurry”.

The OPW certified the training beams in the station could hold up to 250 kilos, while most volunteers would weigh about 80 kilos. Work at Height supplied ropes and straps. A purpose built ladder was supplied for safety and rescue capability if someone got stuck. A safety padded mat was provided on the ground.

“We used to train in the station using steel beams for winter training, which was a great opportunity for people who don’t cave or climb to get themselves in and out of trouble in a controlled environment.

“The Coast Guard Sector Manager for the West Coast, Olan O’Keeffe put fantastic systems in place but once this was done head office said you are not to use this again. We were told there is no more training in the station. I was never told why.

“Volunteers were never consulted about what they would actually need in the new station, which was built and is run by the OPW. The Coast Guard lease it,” he explained.

While the new station was a massive improvement on the old Doolin shed, some volunteers believe it was built in the wrong location.

“A boat and trailer is about 40 feet long. We have to get through buses and traffic to get the boat on to the slipway. It could have been sited at the head of the slipway where the boat would be ready to go.

The entrance into it isn’t wide enough to get the boat out easily. You can’t turn in one direction. It is farcical. It is a general purpose building, there are steps and a wheelchair ramp. We didn’t need both, it could have been widened for the boat.

“It is nearly impossible to get the boat from the road into the yard. The practicalities were never really looked at or discussed.”

He said the main building is open to the sea air, probably for ventilation purposes.

“It is like parking your vehicle out in the open. From a maintenance point of view, that is not a good idea.

“The eaves are mesh and the sea air circulate through the building. The inside steel structure was rusting before we even moved in. It had to addressed.”

Mr McGrath recalled the Coast Guard bought a fleet of 4WD transit vans. They were designed to take seven people and all the climbing equipment. The Coast Guard found out there was an issue as they couldn’t take the required weight.

“To cover it up, they have never used the vans. The vans have a humidity storage area in the back. You can put in all your wet equipment and it will dry it out.

“Because of this problem the vans are sitting empty and equipment is being stored in an open trailer in what is practically an open building.

“There are harnesses costing €300 or €400 with mildew that have never been used because they are sitting in an open trailer in an open building while the van is empty.

“The van could store equipment that is exposed to the damp. But no no, you are not to use the vans, we don’t want to talk about the vans.”

A woman fell on a ledge and had broken her leg near the Cliffs of Moher in 2019. She was 600 ft up, the ledge was only 10 feet down.

Mr McGrath was tasked and drove his four-wheel drive vehicle up to the incident, which he used as an anchor like he has previously done during his day job for Work At Height.

The helicopter didn’t want to lift her as they could have potentially blown her off the ledge.

He set up his climbing equipment with others, secured the casualty and the helicopter airlifted the woman.

A few weeks later, there were people down from the head office, who wanted to regularise this procedure as they felt it had merit.

The Coast Guard bought a four-wheel drive Toyota Hilux, it was equipped with special off road tyres and eight people were sent to an off road training centre in County Meath to do a special training course.

“Toyota fitted special bumpers at the back to accommodate winches. I fitted anchors front and back that you could anchor on to.

“Head Office said we couldn’t use this €50,000 jeep, which was fully fitted out as a mobile anchor. It is sitting there and was never used for a day.

“The fire service use it for river rescue, it is an adapted international procedure,” he said.

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