This week in the Seanad, I raised the need to progress improved Fire Services infrastructure in Galway City

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for attending. I acknowledge the important and life-saving role carried out by our fire personnel in Galway city and county, and across the country. Whether it involves fires, road traffic accidents or river rescues, it is vital life-saving work and sometimes, unfortunately, recovery. I know that fire personnel see some harrowing scenes in their daily work.

Proper facilities are the least we can provide for our fire personnel. The Minister of State’s Department has done significant work throughout the country and in the capital plan to support local authorities in the provision of fire appliances and stations. In Galway city, the fire station on Father Griffin Road is of its age and era. It has been described as archaic. The site has flooded in the past, does not have training facilities and is too small. There is broad agreement that a city the size of Galway, with a growing population of 80,000 and which is projected to grow under the national planning framework, needs a new fire station. It needs a purpose-built, state-of-the-art, fit-for-purpose facility with proper training space. The city council, in conjunction with the county council which leads on fire services for the city and county, is engaged in an ongoing effort to find a suitable site within the city environs, preferably on city council lands. Sites have been suggested near Bóthar na dTreabh, which has appropriate access to the road network in the city. The site at Father Griffin Road may be retained, subject to assessment, as an ancillary site for the immediate locality, especially as it is in the heart of the city and proximate to the River Corrib, which flows through the city. I understand the Corrib is one of the fastest flowing rivers – if not the fastest flowing river – in a city environs in Ireland and possibly across Europe.

We know the important work that our fire personnel do in life saving and recovery. The facility in Father Griffin Road is not fit for purpose. Galway city is a growing centre of population. We need room to expand and a fit-for-purpose and modern facility for the people of Galway. Indeed, the existing fire service also provides cover for areas in south Connemara. There is a new fire station in south Connemara. I was pleased to work with local groups to deliver that facility through the county council and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We now need to look at a proper fit-for-purpose building for Galway city.

What engagement has the Department had with Galway County Council, as lead agent on behalf of the city and county, on identifying and acquiring a site? Will financial support be provided to build a fit-for-purpose site, subject to planning permission and all that goes with that? What engagement is the Department having with chief fire officer in Galway to push the project forward? I know the Department has done a lot of work and is working with the council on the construction of fire stations in Loughrea and Athenry. However, Galway city, with a population of its size, needs a new, modern, fit-for-purpose facility to enhance the services it provides for the city and its environs and its engagement with other fire services in the county. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State’s response.

Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage (Deputy Peter Burke)

I thank the Senator for raising this most important matter today and in recent weeks and months. I am aware that my officials have been liaising with Galway City Council on this matter in recent days on foot of the Senator’s representation and intervention. The provision of a fire service in its functional area, including the establishment and maintenance of a fire brigade, the assessment of fire cover needs and the provision of fire station premises, is a statutory function of individual fire authorities under the Fire Services Acts 1981 and 2003. The Department supports the fire authorities through setting general policy, providing a central training programme, issuing guidance on operational and other related matters and providing capital funding for equipment and priority infrastructural projects.

In December 2020, a new fire services capital programme was announced for the period 2021 to 2025, with a funding allocation of €61 million. Following extensive engagement with fire authorities, a number of proposals for station works were received. The proposals were evaluated and prioritised on the basis of the area risk categorisation of the fire station, established health and safety needs, state of development of the project and value for money offered by the proposal. The new programme will see six replacement fire stations built, continued support for the construction of a further 12 new fire stations, nine fire station refurbishments, as well as the allocation of 35 new fire engines. Galway is one of the counties to have been allocated an appliance, at an approximate cost of €450,000. A new fire station for Athenry in County Galway is also included in the capital programme 2021-25.

My Department works closely with the relevant local authority to progress each fire station project through the necessary stages. Project consideration stages include submission of preliminary and detailed appraisals; submission of design brief; selection of site; application for approval in principle; appointment of design consultants; submission of a preliminary design; planning application; submission of preliminary cost plan, detailed design and cost plans; tender process; and construction stage. In order to maximise the available capital programme funding, the Department reassesses the status of projects in the programme on an annual basis, and some flexibility is normally available to advance projects that are ready and offer best value for money, taking account of the state of readiness of projects more generally.

The Department is aware that at present, Galway city fire station is operating in temporary facilities. The Senator has outlined very clearly the urgency attached to that. It is my understanding that Galway City Council is working with the fire services in Galway city to identify an appropriate site for a headquarters station in the city. When an appropriate site is identified and if the potential project is submitted to my Department for funding, the project will be evaluated urgently for inclusion in the capital programme as outlined.

I know this issue of critical importance to the Senator. As I said, he has raised it with me a number of times in recent weeks. We are now awaiting a submission from the council. I can commit to the proposal being given serious consideration on the basis of the strong argument the Senator has made regarding the provision of a new facility. The Senator has pointed out that we are facing two very difficult weather events in the coming days and in the week and a half ahead. Our fire service is always on the front line, protecting citizens and the most vulnerable. We need to be at the forefront of assisting the service. The Senator has made an excellent case for the development of a new facility in Galway city.

Acting Chairperson (Senator Aisling Dolan)

I thank the Minister of State. His comments on the fire service are very true.

Senator Seán Kyne

I thank the Minister of State for his positive reply. I am sure that on his next visit to Galway city and county, he will be happy to meet the relevant personnel to discuss a fire service facility for Galway. I invite him to do so.

The Minister of State mentioned the project consideration stages. When they are all listed we can see that it is a long process to get a new building delivered. The stages include submission of preliminary and detailed appraisals; submission of design brief; selection of site; application for approval in principle; appointment of design consultants; submission of a preliminary design; planning application; submission of preliminary cost plan, detailed design and cost plans; tender process; and construction stage. The project in Galway is therefore one that will run for a number of years. However, we need to get the site identified and get a submission from the local authority to the Minister of State’s Department. I am sure the Minister of State, together with his officials, will be able to evaluate and progress the project as quickly as possible for the city of Galway and its environs. It is a growing city, as the Minister of State is aware. I know that he is a regular visitor to the Galway races. It is a popular place. There is a hospital, a university and an institute of technology in the soon-to-be Atlantic Technological University. The city has a large population and road network. It is vital that our fire services are fit for purpose and modern. I urge the Minister of State to take hold of this project when it reaches his Department from the county and city councils.

Deputy Peter Burke

I thank the Senator for his intervention. As a former student of NUI Galway, I know the city very well.

This is of critical importance, and that is why officials from our Department met with the chief executive of Galway City Council when this issue was raised. We assured him that once a site is found and an application is brought forward, we will give it the attention it deserves. These things take time, however, and we must be honest about this point in respect of the different stages in the process. We will, though, give this the attention required. As the Senator correctly said, our fire service is critical in keeping us all safe as we go about our daily lives. The service is often taken for granted, but those of us in public life know how important it is because we meet so many people who have been protected by it. I assure the Senator, therefore, that we will follow up on this issue and I will be happy to meet with the various stakeholders on a visit to Galway city and county.