Insight: Mountain rescue volunteers in distress over helicopter service

Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team above Coire an Lochain. Picture: Contributed
Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team above Coire an Lochain. Picture: Contributed
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It’s dark, you can barely see, the terrain underfoot is treacherous and a fierce, icy wind is cutting like a knife right through you. You can feel the weight of your gear, pressing heavy on your back. But you must keep going, one foot after the other, climbing ever higher through swirling snow and low cloud. You’re on a mission, the second of the night. Two people have gone missing on a plateau above, and it’s your job to find them.

Situations like this are all in a day’s work for the members of Scotland’s mountain rescue teams, who are on call round the clock every day of the year to go to the aid of anyone who gets into difficulty in the hills. They could be summoned while at work, as they sit down for Christmas dinner or while reading bedtime stories to their children.

As jobs go, it’s surely one of the most demanding, requiring specialist knowledge and rigorous training. But these men and women don’t get paid for it. They do it because they want to help people, but also because they love the mountains, are highly skilled and know their home turf better than anyone else.

“It’s not about individuals, it’s about the whole team,” said Al Gilmour, spokesman for Independent Scottish Mountain Rescue (iSMR), a coalition of the country’s four busiest teams. “There’s no room for hero worship. The most important thing is to work together and take no unnecessary risks. If a danger is avoidable, it should be avoided.

“It’s quite a remarkable thing. People are part of teams for decades. It becomes a major part of their life. Being a member is definitely a commitment for the whole family.

“But it’s very rewarding too. The teams work very hard to support each other after very traumatic rescues.”

In Scotland there are 27 civilian mountain rescue teams, staffed by more than 1,000 unpaid volunteers, as well as three police teams and an RAF team. Between them they offer a world-class search and rescue service, backed up by the emergency services.

But iSMR members have recently spoken out to criticise the level of assistance they receive from government-funded helicopter services. They feel air support coordinators value the lives of volunteers on the ground less than those of flight crews.

Lochaber, Cairngorms, Glencoe and Tayside teams have already been called out on 229 missions this year – more than for the whole of 2017.

Air support was historically provided by the RAF and Navy, but that has changed in recent years. New contracts signed in 2013 saw the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) take over the service, with aircraft operated by a private firm phased in over a two-year period from 2015. MCA has ten helicopter bases across the UK, four of them in Scotland – at Sumburgh in Shetland, Inverness in the Highlands, Stornoway in the Western Isles and Prestwick in the south-west.

Along with the contracts came the promise that provision would be “the same or better” than what had been provided by the military. But iSMR teams say the new service has failed to live up to this, despite repeated pleas over the past few years for improvements. Disappointed and frustrated that their concerns have been either ignored or dismissed, they took the decision to go public, posting a detailed explanation on their Facebook page.

“The teams have decided that they can no longer accept an apparent casual disregard for the safety of the volunteers shown by the agencies coordinating search and rescue helicopter operations,” their statement said.

They outline two main areas where they believe helicopter services are failing ground teams. The first centres on the lack of assistance provided when a person has died in the hills and the operation is to retrieve their remains. Such missions can be just as arduous and no less risky than a rescue, but helicopter support is not officially provided because fatalities are no longer “persons in distress”. This often leaves volunteers, exhausted and loaded with kit, facing long and dangerous descents while attempting to transport a body in the most respectful manner possible.

The second problem arises in the final phase of a rescue, once the casualty has been taken to safety. Helicopter support is often withdrawn at this point, abandoning ground teams to make their own way back to base – even though they may have been out for many hours and face a gruelling trek to reach a road.

Whether to airlift ground teams or equipment off the hill is left to the discretion of pilots and air crew and hinges on the risks involved. The iSMR believe it’s not fair that they have to make that call, since the well-being of volunteers is just as important.

“It is clear that our concerns cannot be resolved by asking the pilots and crews to fly beyond their ‘endurance’ criteria. We also realise that a significant consideration here is that helicopter crews must be given the opportunity to rest after flying intense technical missions in the mountains. However, experience shows that the agencies are often then unwilling to allocate another aircraft to finish the job.

“The inescapable conclusion to this is that either the aircraft and crews are too thinly spread to cover requirements or that the agencies do not view the welfare of the volunteer teams in the same way as they appreciate that of the pilots and crew.”

The reality is most rescues are carried out without air support, according to Gilmour.

“But the new contract does not take proper account of the responsibilities of rescuers,” he insists.

“They are at high risk during retrieval of a fatality and the chopper is not allowed to help unless a team member is injured. But we think they have a duty of care.

“The volume of incidents is growing and there is ongoing worry that someone could die. Volunteers are working in an incredibly difficult environment and need a bit of support.”

The MCA has insisted the work of all volunteers in search and rescue is valued.

A spokeswoman for the organisation said: “We know how much what they do matters. We also care greatly for our helicopter crews, who often put themselves at great risk to rescue others.

“There has been no change in the approach we take to the recovery by search and rescue helicopter of those who have sadly died in the mountains. In that respect, our helicopters follow the procedures previously operated by the much-respected military SAR service.

“That means that it is ultimately the aircraft captain’s decision to accept or decline a request to recover a confirmed fatality from the mountain, and we will always respect that decision. If a request is declined, it will usually be because the conditions at that moment in time do not warrant putting four helicopter crew and their passengers at extreme risk in a situation where time is no longer of the essence. Instead we will seek to undertake a recovery of this kind when the risk subsides.

“Our helicopter crews routinely demonstrate incredible bravery in rescuing others. Our Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre [ARCC] is made up of highly professional operators that task and coordinate our helicopters. We are immensely proud of the work of all those who play a part in this life-saving service that rescues or assists over 1,900 members of the public every year.”

Representatives of the other 23 volunteer teams stress the importance of all parties working together.

“Even an apparently simple rescue in the mountains will involve many agencies collaborating,” said Damon Powell, chair of the umbrella group Scottish Mountain Rescue.

“Scottish Mountain Rescue teams work closely with all our partner agencies and we spend considerable time working within the UK Search and Rescue framework, discussing and listening to the various challenges involved in a multi-agency rescue.

“The teams we represent understand that these discussions can be nuanced and complex and that the best outcome for any casualty is achieved if we work collaboratively and take the time to understand our partner agencies.”

The iSMR teams have been overwhelmed by the level of backing they have received from members of the public in response to their concerns.

Labour MSP Rhoda Grant raised the issue at First Minister’s Questions and SNP MP Ian Blackford has been liaising with the UK Department for Transport on behalf of iSMR. Scottish Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf has written to the teams, pledging to “take whatever steps we can to make sure they get any available support for the vital work they do”.

The ARCC is amending its operating procedures “to allow a more open and pragmatic approach to helicopter support for body recovery and lifting volunteers to and from the scene”.

This weekend, the iSMR was meeting Police Scotland, which is responsible for coordinating rescues. The force has proposed amendments to the MCA standard operating procedure to make provision for body recovery and clearing the hill. Talks with helicopter crews are also set to take place shortly.

Although control of helicopter rescue services lies with Westminster, Scottish leaders have stepped in to the row.

A spokesman for the Scottish Government said: “We have previously raised these issues with the Coastguard Agency, who are responsible for search and rescue helicopter support across the UK.

“Police Scotland have held discussions with the agency and have since written to the four independent teams about developments, and the response has been positive.”

The Scottish Government provides annual funding of £312,000 to be divided among the 27 civilian volunteer teams – the only administration in the UK to do so.

Other assistance is provided to supply radios and specialist stretchers.

Gilmour said: “Hopefully the strength of support that has been expressed will help the agencies on a longer journey to improve the welfare of the casualty and respect for the deceased and their families, and potentially promote the effectiveness of all volunteer mountain rescue teams by experiencing less avoidable risk and being better able to be ready for the next rescue.”