Special Report 113 - Procurement of vehicles by the Irish Coast Guard

Published 22 October 2021

The Coast Guard service is part of the State’s emergency response infrastructure, with a remit that includes engaging in the promotion of maritime safety, and in maritime and coastal search and rescue, including cliff rescue. 

The Coast Guard operates as a unit within the Department of Transport, staffed by about 86 civil servants who provide administrative support to 44 operational Coast Guard units that are mainly staffed by volunteers.  In 2020, the Coast Guard had just under 900 volunteers.  17 of the Coast Guard units perform cliff rescue. 

In November 2015, the Department signed a contract for the supply and fit out of vehicles for cliff rescue teams.  Under the contract, the Department acquired 18 vehicles between 2016 and 2020, and incurred expenditure of almost €1.4 million.  This comprised €809,000 for the supply of the vehicles and a further €568,000 in relation to fit out.  The average all-in cost was around €76,500 per vehicle.

Specification of requirements

A number of weaknesses were identified in relation to the specification of requirements.

  • Despite the size of the Coast Guard vehicle fleet — about 230 vehicles in all — and the operational importance of the fleet for the provision of the service, a strategic plan for the improvement, management and maintenance of the fleet has not been developed.
  • The Coast Guard did not set out in advance why the vehicles purchased were needed operationally; the number of vehicles and the type and functionality required; or how the procurement would be accommodated within the available budgets and over what time frame.
  • There was no evidence that the views and advice of the expected users of the vehicles — in this case, the members of the cliff rescue teams — were sought in advance of contracting for the supply of new vehicles.
  • The request for tenders published by the Department did not specify a required vehicle carrying capacity (payload), or indicate the weight, dimensions or nature of the equipment to be carried.
  • After the contract had been signed, the Coast Guard convened a technical advisory group to assess the vehicles contracted for and to advise on their fit out. Therefore, the group’s technical expertise was not used in the evaluation of tenders received.

Because it relies on volunteer drivers, the Coast Guard wished to keep the gross vehicle weight (the combined weight of the vehicle itself plus the payload of team members and gear) of the cliff rescue vehicles below 3,500 kg, so that they could be driven by holders of a category B driving licence.  In practice, it would be very difficult to source a vehicle that could deliver the load carrying capacity sought by the Coast Guard for both team members and cliff rescue equipment while not exceeding a gross vehicle weight of 3,500 kg.

Tendering for the vehicles

Because of the legal and technical framework within which public procurement occurs, comprehensive and accurate record keeping is essential.  It is consequently unacceptable that there are major gaps in the Department’s records in relation to the tendering process for the vehicles, and particularly in relation to the evaluation of bids.

When the tender was advertised, the estimated value of the contract was stated publicly at €160,000.  The understatement of the contract value may have discouraged prospective tenderers and served to limit the extent of competition for the business.

Tenders were received from two firms.  The records that have been made available for this examination indicate that there were clear and substantial deficiencies in the tender evaluation carried out.  As a result, there is no reasonable basis to conclude that the Department conducted a fair and impartial procurement process for the vehicles. 

Based on the information that was available, a number of issues were identified in relation to the evaluation of tenders received.

  • In evaluating the tenders, half of the evaluation marks were allocated to the ‘functionality and suitability for use’ of the proposed vehicles. The examination team could not identify any reasonable explanation or rationale for the scores awarded under this criterion. 
  • A total of 15% of the available marks were allocated for the proposals in relation to fitting out of the vehicles. The request for tenders did not outline sufficient specification detail on what the fit out was to comprise.  The examination team could not identify a reasonable basis for the award of marks for this criterion. 
  • Proposed overall cost accounted for 25% of the evaluation scores. However, the respective cost proposals were not properly evaluated, and it is unclear what the scores awarded are based upon.

Supply and delivery of vehicles

The Coast Guard contracted to purchase a higher-cost vehicle than the vehicle that had been selected in the tender evaluation process.  While longer than the vehicle originally proposed at the tender stage, the vehicle contracted for did not offer any additional payload capacity.  There is no evidence that the vehicle purchased was ever formally evaluated by the Coast Guard.

Immediately after the contract was signed, issues around the carrying capabilities of the vehicles were identified.  A report completed in November 2016 (after the first vehicle was delivered) noted that the vehicle had very limited use for a cliff rescue team.  It is not clear whether the Department considered varying or halting the procurement of further vehicles in light of the concerns raised.  However, the vehicles were uprated to a higher vehicle weight.  The cost associated with the uprating have not been separately identified. 

Apart from the uprating work, the cost of fitting out the vehicles was expected to be a significant element of the overall cost.  Bidder A estimated that additional costs of €18,340 would be incurred to fit out the vehicles.  In the end the Coast Guard spent on average €31,500 per vehicle on the fit out and uprating, bringing the total average all-in cost per vehicle to just under €76,500.

Deployment of vehicles acquired

Of the 18 vehicles purchased, 17 are assigned to units around the coast and are being used as emergency response vehicles.  The remaining vehicle is located at the Coast Guard’s headquarters.  Cliff rescue units continue to rely on multiple vehicles to transport a cliff rescue team and the related equipment to the scene of a call-out.

Improvements in procurement processes

A number of changes to the Department’s procurement procedures are required, in particular, in relation to strategic planning for equipment requirements and the enhancement of the Department’s processes and procedures governing the management of procurement and the conduct of individual tendering exercises.

This report makes a number of recommendations in that regard, all of which have been accepted by the Department.