One of the Coastguard helicopters. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

One of the Coastguard helicopters. Photo: Bob Smith/grough

Four Scottish mountain rescue teams who voiced their concerns over the level of support from the UK’s search and rescue helicopters said they have been overwhelmed by support they received.

They also said Police Scotland have responded positively to the volunteers’ complaints.

Glencoe, Lochaber, Tayside and Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Teams jointly said the agencies that control the privately owned helicopters were showing a casual disregard for team members’ safety.

The crews of the aircraft were not being allowed to help the teams recover bodies from mountains after a fatality. They also said team members were being left in dangerous situation on Scotland’s mountains when helicopters were promptly withdrawn from an area when a casualty had been recovered.

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency’s crews which fly the Bristow-owned helicopters are mobilised by the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre in Fareham, Hampshire.

The four volunteer teams are collectively part of independent Scottish Mountain Rescue, a breakaway group from the main representative body Scottish Mountain Rescue. The four teams cover some of the most difficult terrain in Scotland, including Ben Nevis, the Cairngorms and the peaks of Glen Coe.

A spokesperson said: “Following our public statement regarding our concerns about the way in which the rescue helicopter (SAR H) contract is being coordinated and operated, the four teams of Glencoe, Lochaber, Tayside and Cairngorm have been overwhelmed and humbled by the level of support that we have received from the public.

“We have been further gratified to find that so many others in the world of mountain rescue and also people with experience in operating and coordinating rescue helicopters have been prepared to lend their support to our concerns. Thank you to each and every one of you.”

A spokesperson for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said at the time: “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.”

The teams outlined developments since Friday’s public statement.

“We have now received a response from Police Scotland that shows attempts are starting to be made to address the concerns we have had for some time.”

The UK’s volunteer mountain rescue teams operate under the aegis of the police, who request their help in operations.

The iSMR said: “Our concerns have been acknowledged and commitments have been made to attempt to influence the review of the SAR H contract and to encourage the Maritime Coastguard Agency and the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre to adopt a more pragmatic approach to their standard operating procedures.

“We are grateful to Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams for his personal intervention in progressing this and hope that his efforts will be successful.

“However, we recognise that Police Scotland may not be able to generate the level of change required without a change in stance and practice from the MCA and ARCC.

“The four teams want to positively recognise that Police Scotland has led this first small step forward.

“We have also had invites from several politicians to take up our concerns and we welcome their support. We will follow these invites up.

“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.”

Search and rescue helicopter operations were previously undertaken by military crews from the RAF and Royal Navy. In 2016 these were transferred under a contract overseen by the UK Department for Transport to new aircraft owned and operated by Bristow, under the control of the Coastguard, under whose logo and colours the helicopters fly.

The ARCC was also transferred from Kinloss in north-east Scotland to the south coast of England.

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