72. Deputy Thomas P. Broughan asked the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if he will report on the progress made with filling personnel vacancies in the Air Corps which are urgently required for the transport service for transplant patients; and if he will make a statement on the matter. (Question 7101/17 asked on 15 Feb 2017)
Minister of State at the Department of Defence (Deputy Paul Kehoe): The HSE’s Aeromedical Desk in its National Emergency Operations Centre is responsible for the co-ordination of transport arrangements for paediatric organ transplant transfers to the UK. Air transport for these patients is currently provided in three ways: Air Corps fixed-wing and rotor-wing aircraft; Irish Coast Guard rotor-wing aircraft; and private air ambulance providers.
As one of the components of the Defence Forces, the Air Corps contributes to all roles assigned by Government including responsibilities relating to the provision of Aid to the Civil Power and maritime security tasks. Like other elements of the Defence Forces, the Air Corps also undertakes other roles in accordance with agreed Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and Service Level Agreements (SLAs).
In this context, the Department of Defence has an SLA with the Department of Health and the HSE for the Air Corps to use its fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft to transport patients and medical teams between hospitals within Ireland and abroad, on an as available basis. In accordance with the SLA, this availability is dependent upon the availability of suitable aircraft, the availability of flying crews and the suitability of weather conditions. The terms of the SLA do not provide for the Air Corps to deliver a dedicated, 24/7 transport service.
This approach was maintained in the White Paper on Defence (2015) which stated that the Air Corps will continue to provide an emergency inter-hospital transfer service in support of the HSE on an as available basis. This means that fixed or rotary wing aircraft are not required to be on standby for this purpose. However, if such aircraft and personnel are available when requested for a mission, they can be deployed.
I can confirm that the level of availability of Air Corps aircraft for inter-hospital transfer tasks has reduced. This is largely because the Air Corp has experienced retirements of highly experienced personnel which is outstripping the recruitment and training of replacement personnel. This has led to a shortage of experienced pilots which has reduced the number of available flying crews. Due to these crew shortages, aircraft availability for the inter-hospital air ambulance service is reduced.
Every effort is being made to address the H.R. challenges for the Defence Forces. In the case of the Air Corps, there are 28 cadets, in 3 classes, undergoing the various stages of the Air Corps cadetship to become pilots. In addition, targeted recruitment will continue in 2017. A new NCO promotion competition, to fill the ranks of Sergeants and above, including those in the Air Corps, has been launched. Promotions from this competition will commence in Q3 2017.
My officials will continue to keep the Department of Health and the HSE fully informed of the situation in the Air Corps. The Department of Health, the HSE, the Department of Defence and other key stakeholders are working together to optimise availability of air transport within current arrangements and to identify longer term options.