RTÉ News has learned that the Department of Transport is planning to downgrade the Coast Guard search and rescue helicopter service in the southeast.

Search and rescue helicopter bases in Dublin, Shannon and Sligo are to remain with 24-hour cover, but the Waterford service operated from Waterford regional airport is to be reduced to a 12-hour, daylight only service. This would save an estimated €1m per year.

Fishermen's organisations, RNLI members and politicians in the southeast have expressed outrage at the downgrading of the service.

The Department of Transport received proposals from seven private companies for the lucrative ten-year, nationwide search and rescue helicopter contract, which is up for tender and is believed to be worth around €500m.

The Canadian helicopter company CHC, which currently operates the service for the Coast Guard around the country, has been told that it is the preferred bidder.

The Department of Transport has said there will be no change in the existing 24-hour helicopter search and rescue service from four centres around the country until new contracts begin on a phased basis in two years' time.

In a statement this afternoon, the Department of Transport says that the four existing bases will continue in operation, with Waterford on a 12-hour basis, subject to review.

The main role of Coast Guard helicopters is to provide Ireland's 24/7/365 maritime and coastal SAR rescue service, locating persons in distress or imminent risk, providing immediate medical treatment where required, and evacuating them to an appropriate place of safety.

The helicopters also carry trained fire brigade and Health Service Executive (HSE) personnel. They provide equipment for incidents on ships at sea.

Their role is also to investigate and act to mitigate marine pollution, and support communities on the islands of Ireland by evacuating the seriously ill or injured, and assisting in the event of major emergencies.

They are also available to assist the other three blue light services (Garda, Ambulance Service and Fire Services) in the execution of their roles and during major national emergency situations on land.