Irish Coast Guard shopping for new search-and-rescue service

By Dan Parsons | January 13, 2022

Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 19 seconds.

The Irish Coast Guard is recompeting a contract, long-held by CHC, to provide helicopter search-and-rescue services to the island nation and its territorial waters. 

CHC’s current contract, awarded in 2010, can be extended to 2025 at the latest and the Irish Coast Guard wants another 10-year service agreement in place before it expires, according to ICG documentation.

Irish Coast Guard helicopter
Irish Coast Guard helicopter services are provided under contract by CHC Helicopters Ireland. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

“The decision paves the way for the procurement of this vital element of our Search and Rescue system over a 10-year period,” Minister of State Hildegarde Naughton said in July, when the process to issue a new SAR tender was formally launched. “The timelines and procurement strategy agreed today will ensure a seamless transition from the existing contract with CHCI. It will also offer the potential to avail of developments in technology since the last contract was let in 2010 and to build on the experience and lessons learnt over the last 10 years.”

Ireland’s Air Corps intends to adopt a “hybrid” model in which the Air Corps provides some infrastructure, personnel and aircraft alongside a civil helicopter operator providing the rotorcraft necessary to meet the nation’s maritime SAR requirement, according to documents outlining the process

“Based on the business case analysis, the new service is expected to benefit from some new elements including a dedicated fixed wing component to provide the IRCG with an on-call pollution monitoring, high endurance search and top cover capability,” the Irish government said in a statement issued in July. “It also has the potential to allow a more innovative helicopter fleet. The helicopter element will include night vision capability from the outset. From a competitive perspective, the procurement will benefit from a more extensive range of potential helicopter solutions than would have been on the market in 2010.”

For about $68 million (€60 million) per year, CHC currently provides 24/7 contracted SAR service with five Sikorsky S-92a helicopters at four bases throughout Ireland. One helicopter at each base is required to be airborne with 15 minutes’ notice during the day and within 45 minutes of receiving a call at night. 

Irish government officials and politicians would like to transition at least some responsibility for SAR operations to its armed forces. With the current CHC contract, the government does not own the aircraft but pays handsomely for their operation. The government also has limited supervision of CHC, an issue highlighted by the crash of Rescue 116 in 2017 that killed all four personnel on board. 

Due to the natural features of the Irish coastline, crews have to be current with all types of operations, including confined space in proximity to steep cliffs. Lukasz Gancarz Photo

But the Irish Air Corps lacks the staff to establish round-the-clock readiness at four bases, operate and maintain enough aircraft and provide emergency medical personnel. Its pilots are trained in the United States because of a lack of domestic military instructors. CHC provides pilots with years of flying experience in a variety of helicopter industry sectors, from all over the world and on different types of aircraft, where Irish Air Corps pilots primarily fly smaller Airbus H135 and Leonardo AW139 helicopters. Ireland is weighing the effectiveness of the S92 against the AW139 as a SAR aircraft. 

A pre-qualification questionnaire for candidates was issued on December 22, setting out criteria to determine which operators have the capacity to perform the impending contract. Interested operators have until Jan. 26 to reply to the PQQ. 

The IRC clarified its requirements for aviation SAR services under the new contract. They include a minimum of three helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, though bidders can offer more on-call aircraft. 

Ireland’s Coast Guard is a division of the Department of Transport responsible for maritime search and rescue and ship casualty response. It typically responds to 2,800 incidents a year, of which about 800 involved helicopter taskings, according to IRCG data. 

The new contract likely will be similar to CHC’s current contract, a 10-year base service agreement with an option to extend for up to 3 additional years. 

Bidder should maintain a minimum of 95 percent availability for each of the three helicopters and be able to deploy at least one helicopter anywhere in Ireland to within 12 nautical miles of the coast in 45 minutes of being airborne. The IRCG also wants the ability to surge two helicopters to certain incidents, hoist one casualty at a range of 220 nautical miles with 10 minutes loiter timed at the scene and at least five at 200 nm. 

Each helicopter should have cabin space room for two stretchers and six seated passengers or 15 total passengers. They should be able to carry six emergency services personnel with kit 100 nm with 20 minutes on scene and have full icing clearance. 

The deadline for bids is scheduled to May with negotiations between the government and bidders beginning in July. Those negotiations should conclude in September and final offers are due in November. The Irish government will then award a contract to the preferred bidder in March 2023, according to its published schedule.  

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