If you go down to the woods today . . .

PLANNING a bit of rock climbing in Ireland sometime soon? Spare a thought for the poor sods who will be called out to help you if you get lost or into any kind of bother.

Volunteer mountain rescue workers don’t actually get enough in grants to enable them to cover themselves with adequate insurance.

At the moment, the 400 or so volunteers – who are stand-by 24-hours-a-day to rescue stranded climbers or walkers – can only afford very basic personal accident cover.

Yet in the event of a serious accident that, for example, could leave a volunteer crippled for life – their payout would be two thirds LESS than what a Garda or Defence Forces worker could expect to get.

Last night Gerry Christie, chairman of the Kerry Mountain Rescue Team, said the situation was “an insult”.

He added: “We love what we do and are more than happy to drop everything and head out in all weathers to help save people’s lives.

“But if we get into trouble ourselves, a funding shortfall means we can’t actually afford to cover ourselves with as much insurance as the Garda – as government employees – can.

“The government is effectively saying that our lives are worth less because we volunteer to do this job.”

About 12 mountain rescue teams operate nationally and are on 24-hour stand-by every day of the year – including Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve.

Christmas is one of their busiest times of the year.

The Kerry Mountain Rescue team has about 25 call-outs a year, with about 15 of them being serious.

In each incident – almost all its 35 members will go out on the call-out.

Recent activities include rescuing a young family who had become disoriented on Torc Mountain during a storm and spending six hours retrieving the remains of a Swedish climber in a treacherous section of Mangerton Mountain.

Days later they rescued a young woman who had sustained injuries in a fall on another part of the same Mangerton Mountain.

Once found, the volunteers had to stretcher her down the mountain in the dark.

In the 40 years they have been in operation, not one of their members has ever been injured in an accident.

But a recent review of the organisation’s insurance polices by the group’s treasurer Aidan Forde revealed the shortfall.

He says the full policy premium should cost them Euro 40,000 but instead they can only afford to pay Euro 13,000.

He said: “It does seem extraordinary to us that the government’s care of duty to a volunteer is less than to one of its own employees.”

Christie added: “We are effectively a Garda reserve unit – prepared to go out on a rescue when they call us up.

“But it is a complete disgrace that the life of a volunteer is not deemed to be worth covering as much as the cover that is available for a state employee.

“I take offence at that, considering the work carried out each year by the members of mountain rescue teams in this country.”

Local councillor said Seamus Cosai Fitzgerald: “Each time these members put their lives at risk to help others on our mountains, they are vulnerable to any injuries that they themselves could sustain because their insurance coverage is totally inadequate.

“Minister John O’Donoghue should consider what may be done to ensure that these specially trained and deeply committed volunteers are given the funding they need.

“It is an absolute travesty that these volunteers give up their valuable time training and rescuing others and yet are left completely vulnerable themselves because of inadequate insurance coverage.”

A spokesman for the Garda Representative Association said: “We would wholeheartedly endorse a move to ensure these rescuers receive the appropriate level of insurance cover.

“We cannot see any reason why this is not already the case, given the extraordinary service they provide to so many people who use and enjoy the great outdoors.

“They offer what is effectively a free safety service that the Garda is simply not able to supply due to the commitment of its resources in other areas.”

The Department of transport – which recently approved a €500,000 grant to build extra footpaths throughout the National Park – was unavailable for comment.

ENDS

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