The Coastguard helicopter based at Prestwick. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

The Coastguard helicopter based at Prestwick. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Scotland’s four busiest volunteer mountain rescue teams have accused the agencies operating the UK’s rescue helicopters of having a ‘casual disregard’ for the safety of team members.

Glencoe, Tayside, Lochaber and Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Teams said the refusal to allow the aircraft to help with certain missions is putting their members at serious risk.

The four teams, which cover some of Scotland’s most difficult mountainous terrain, said they had decided to make their concerns public after being frustrated at official responses.

They stressed they were not criticising the crews of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s helicopters, with whom they have a good working relationship, but the agencies that are responsible for mobilising the aircraft.

At the heart of the complaints are the fact that the Coastguard crews are not allowed to help recover dead casualties from the mountains, nor are they being permitted to airlift crews from the hill after a casualty has been rescued, often leaving team members with a difficult and sometimes dangerous long descent in severe weather.

The problems have arisen since the UK’s search and rescue helicopter service was switched from the military aircraft of the RAF and Royal Navy to a private company under the control of the MCA in 2016.

The Aeronautical Rescue Co-ordination Centre, which is responsible for mobilising the helicopters, was also moved from north-east Scotland to Fareham in Hampshire.

Al Gilmour of Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team, speaking on behalf of the four teams, said 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 teams, who formed their own umbrella body, independent Scottish Mountain Rescue after separating from the main organisation, said staff 550 miles away on the south coast of England didn’t understand the nature of the dangers faced by rescuers and the large distances involved.

A Lochaber team member searching on the North Face. Photo: Lochaber MRT

A Lochaber team member searching on the North Face. Photo: Lochaber MRT

Matters seemed to come to a head in June when Lochaber MRT members located the body of climber Marcin Bialas, who had gone missing in Observatory Gully on Ben Nevis in January.

The teams said: “The recovery involved the rescuers carrying stretchers, ropes, technical rescue and personal equipment approximately 5km to an elevation of about 1,100m up the mountain.

“The terrain in this location is very difficult, with many risks to rescuers. It was carried out on one of the hottest days ever recorded in the UK. It took the volunteer mountain rescuers nearly seven hours to reach the location of the casualty and evacuate to Fort William.

“The recovery involved technical lowers down dangerous snow slopes, carrying a stretcher over large and mobile rock and scree slopes leading to many falls which luckily only resulted in minor injuries to the rescuers.

“At one point the team leader requested that the team doctor attend the scene as he was concerned about the potential for more serious injuries occurring. The stretcher was dislodging very large boulders which was putting the people on the stretcher carry, and other rescuers lower down in gully, at risk.

“Prior to starting the recovery, the find was reported to Police Scotland and the assistance of a search and rescue helicopter was requested. The request was specifically to assist with getting personnel and equipment deployed to the location. Following a discussion by LMRT team leader with the ARCC, he was told that ‘unfortunately they would not be able to deploy a helicopter to assist due to [Civil Aviation Authority] regulations’.

“We have previously been informed that the search and recovery of presumed-dead casualties is an unacceptable risk to aircraft, crews and SAR passengers.

“It should be noted that, in this instance, LMRT specifically did not request the helicopter to help with the recovery of the fatality, but to assist with getting rescuers and equipment as close as possible to the location. The decision not to assist was not made by the crews or operators of SARH, but by ARCC, who are located at Fareham in the South of England.”

The teams’ concerns were conveyed in a letter to Deputy Chief Constable Johnny Gwyne of Police Scotland, but the rescuers said they never received a reply or acknowledgement.

The letter also detailed Glencoe MRT’s ‘long technical recovery’ of a body; the Tayside team’s retrieval of a walker’s body during which an all-terrain vehicle they were using overturned. While Lochaber MRT members were preparing to be airlifted to Knoydart to recover the body of walker Ian Stalker, the crew was ordered by ARCC not to undertake the mission but ignored the controller’s instructions and flew the rescuers out to the remote site and helped brought the deceased walker back.

Cairngorm MRT members were left at a remote site near the Shelter Stone Crag after a helicopter airlifted the casualty to hospital. The team was left with an 11km walk back to base with all their technical equipment.

In a recent rescue, ARCC would not authorise a Tayside MRT request to mobilise a helicopter until it received a police incident number, leading to a delay in deploying the aircraft, iSMR said.

Mountain rescue team members often face long walks back after a mission. Photo: Cairngorm MRT

Mountain rescue team members often face long walks back after a mission. Photo: Cairngorm MRT

Al Gilmour said: “As the teams prepare to undertake difficult and potentially dangerous rescues in such winter conditions 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.

“As the recent weeks have shown, the undertaking of rescues in the mountains requires a close working relationship between highly skilled helicopter crews and the equally highly skilled volunteer rescuers operating on the ground.

“The teams have excellent longstanding relationships with the crews of the helicopters and any criticism following is aimed purely at the coordination of the service – which they suspect the crews often find as frustrating as do the teams.

“The teams have made repeated representations to the agencies regarding their concerns since the inception of this latest contract.”

In a letter to Ian Blackford, the Scottish National Party’s MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, Westminster Department for Transport minister Nusrat Ghani said: “The recovery of positively confirmed casualties is not, strictly speaking, a search and rescue mission.”

Ms Ghani said the ARCC would sometimes attempt to recover the body if the level of risk to crew and passengers was not considered too great.

“Understandably, the ARCC will also need to consider the wider impact to the Coastguard SAR helicopter service to make sure that we do not divert critical lifesaving equipment and personnel away from other lifesaving work.”

Transport minister Nusrat Ghani. Photo: UK Parliament CC-BY-SA-3.0

Transport minister Nusrat Ghani. Photo: UK Parliament CC-BY-SA-3.0

On the issue of ‘clearing the hill’ – airlifting rescue team members off a mountain at the conclusion of a rescue, the minister said: “I understand that SAR helicopters should not routinely be required to clear the hill as a mountain rescue team should be able to operate independently and without helicopter support.

“In circumstances where an MRT are on a rescue and where there is a clear risk to the team, a search and rescue helicopter can be requested to move the team to a place of safety.”

Mr Gilmour said the agencies involved: the Department for Transport; Police Scotland; the ARCC and the MCA all had a role in the creation of the original contract for SAR helicopter provision when the role was taken away from military crews.

He said: “The problem is essentially encapsulated in the failure of this – not so – new contract. With the creation of this contract mountain rescue was promised that the service delivered would be ‘the same or better.’ It simply isn’t.”

“The reality repeatedly is that the agencies take the decision that the aircraft should not be used at all to assist the volunteer teams even though it can often markedly reduce the risk to those volunteer teams.”

The iSMR teams said they have seen an increasing unwillingness to deploy the aircraft to assist in the final phase of a rescue – the ‘clearing the hill’ – throughout the term of the contract. Often, they said, because the agencies see that the ‘person in distress’ has been already uplifted.

Mr Gilmour said: “The problem is, however, that the volunteer rescuers are still on the hill. They may be many miles, thousands of feet of ascent and descent or both from their vehicles or access to a road. This is also often compounded by darkness and the weather.

“To give an impression of what this can mean: a volunteer can end up undertaking a difficult and dangerous thousand-foot cliff rescue in a remote location, over many hours, requiring large amounts of heavy technical gear, only to find that, once the casualty is on board, air support is withdrawn.

“This leaves the heavily laden team to return over the mountainous terrain for many hours. As with all rescue resources this also means that during this time the team is not available for any other incidents.

“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 yellow RAF Sea Kings were also part of the previous military search and rescue service

The yellow RAF Sea Kings were part of the previous military search and rescue service

“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.

“It is felt that the agencies have been clear here as to their opinions. They clearly do not view the welfare of the volunteer teams as of significant enough importance as to warrant the continued air support to clear the hill.”

Referring to the minister’s reply to Ian Blackford, he said: “They have also been cheeky enough to say that the teams ‘should’ be able to make their own way off the hill. Perhaps implying that the teams are lazy?

“The reality is that the teams very often do have to make their own way off the hill as the teams have the capabilities to operate in conditions way outside the capabilities of any helicopter; be that cloud, blizzards and storm force winds, for example.

“The teams’ volunteers are well trained, well equipped, very capable and robust but they are not invincible.

“The issue overall is felt to revolve around the terms of the contract. The views of bodies that are clearly poorly advised as to the actual conditions and requirements of mountain-based search and rescue.

“The contract simply does not make sufficient provision for the support of volunteer rescue teams working on these mountain rescues. If this is the case, then it is changes to this contract that will ensure there is no comprise when it comes to the safety of volunteer mountain rescue teams.

“The teams in iSMR have decided to go public on this matter as they have been left with no alternative given the unwillingness of the agencies to address all of the above despite numerous requests over the past few years.

The Royal Navy Sea Kings of HMS Gannet were a familiar sight in the mountains before the service was switched to civilian crews

The Royal Navy Sea Kings of HMS Gannet were a familiar sight in the mountains before the service was switched to civilian crews

“The teams also want to assure everyone that regardless of their concerns they will continue to search for, rescue and recover your loved ones, despite the apparent lack of support from certain Agencies.

“The teams in iSMR simply object to being apparently seen as expendable by the agencies.”

A spokesperson for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “HM Coastguard works with many organisations and thousands of volunteers in the vital work of saving lives at sea, on the coast and overland.

“We value and appreciate the work of all volunteers in search and rescue. 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.

“While the recovery of bodies positively confirmed as deceased is not strictly speaking a search and rescue mission, it is a mission HM Coastguard may support under some circumstances.

“Our crews, when tasked by the helicopter tasking authority – the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre – and in conjunction with the relevant coordinating authority, will attempt to assist the recovery of a dead body if the level of risk to the crews and their passengers, as judged by the ARCC and duty crew, is not considered to be too great.

“This is a dynamic risk assessment conducted on a case-by-case basis taking into account the level of risk. We also need to consider the wider impact to our service in diverting critical lifesaving equipment and personnel. We may need to delay such a recovery during our busier periods.

“Search and rescue helicopters should not routinely be required to clear the hill as fundamentally, a mountain rescue team must be able to operate independently and without helicopter support as conditions on the day might mean that our helicopters are simply unable to reach a team on the hill.

“However, in circumstances where an MR team are on a rescue and where there is a clear risk to the MR team, the helicopter can be asked to remove them from the area to a place of safety.

“If required, this would be through discussion with the Police Scotland duty officer, ARCC duty officer and duty crew, taking into consideration other national taskings and balancing the risk to both the teams and helicopter crews.”

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