The role of Mountain Rescue?

What job should UK mountain rescue teams be doing?

Below is a quote from the wife of a UK Mountain Rescue team member, posted on the Facebook page of a regional newspaper on a story about Police pay:

They farm more and more of the “unpleasant” work out to organisations such as mountain rescue teams who have to pick up the dead bodies from farm and road accidents. If they are not happy, leave and become self employed and find out how hard the real world is.

It’s an interesting one. Should MR teams be retrieving bodies from farm accidents? Are police forces ‘farming out’ work to unpaid civilian volunteer teams?

The history of UK mountain rescue teams is usually rooted in a community response to incidents happening in their area. The first teams came about following the rise in popularity of mountaineering without a system of rescue and medical care being in place that could deal with the inevitable accidents. Mountaineering clubs gradually improved the skills and equipment they held through the early 20th Century, formalising first with the First Aid Committee of Mountaineering Clubs, which later became the Mountain Rescue Committee. The efforts of groups of mountaineers and clubs, often working alongside the RAF Mountain Rescue teams set up to deal with the rescue and recovery of downed aircrew, became the MR teams that are busy in the hills and mountains of the UK still. The underlying principle that linked them all is that they are “saving lives in wild and remote places” – the mission statement of Mountain Rescue England and Wales (although now missing from their website).

The role many of the teams under the Mountain Rescue England and Wales banner today is varied. The busiest teams in the U.K., such as Llanberis MRT work almost solely on callouts involving lost, missing or injured walkers, climbers and other mountain-goers. Occasionally they deal with other incidents in their are where their technical expertise is crucial in accessing those areas. The gradual rise in callouts over the last decade have been attributed to many things, from the increased popularity and success of tourism promotion or the new possibilities for finding hiking friends and groups that social media has allowed. Mobile phones, cheaper outdoor equipment or just more people wanting to experience the mountains for themselves have also been blamed. Whatever the reason, the busiest teams are generally getting busier.

The quieter teams tend to be away from the popular mountain and outdoor recreation areas. They may have hundreds or thousands of square miles of wild and remote terrain in their ‘patch’, but the operational tempo is a lot lower, numbering in single figures for some teams. However these teams still work to a professional standard, with the same equipment and the same unpaid volunteers trained to a level unmatched anywhere by a salaried job in the U.K.

UK rescue teams have become involved in high and low-profile incidents away from the mountains for many years now. Missing person searches in rural and urban areas, flooding and severe weather events, murder inquiries, technical rope and water rescues, crashed aircraft and a lot more besides that isn’t always public knowledge. A quick read through the newsfeed of Mountain Rescue England and Wales shows a number of non-mountain incidents peppered amongst the usual lost or injured walkers and climbers. Like the fire service, UK mountain rescue has evolved into a set of teams that perform a role the other emergency services cannot. Where this started is difficult to unpick though – how and why did mountain rescue drift away from the mountains and onto the streets and fields?

I think for most teams they could see something happening in their community, and they knew they had the skills and personnel to help. It may be a missing child or vulnerable person, or somebody in a situation that could be resolved using techniques honed in the wilderness. In the first instances at least. For some teams (and I must stress the ‘some’) the potential diversity in their role was a way of improving their awareness and getting some publicity for their relatively quiet teams. It’s all a question of cash…

Like all modern charities each mountain rescue teams have to run like a business, even if everybody involved is an unpaid volunteer giving dozens of hours each month (or week!). Their customer is the general public, whom they rescue without charge and (normally) without criticism. The customer pays for this service through fundraising and donations. Not everybody pays, but those who do drop a pound coin into the collection tin or bequeath hundreds of thousands of pounds to rescue teams essentially fund their operations. A small amount is now given to teams by various government funds, but the vast majority of rescue teams in England and Wales does comes from the general public. The problem is – who are you giving money to? Is it the team that you see fundraising in the local town centre but have otherwise never heard of, or the one you saw on the evening news the night before as the reports came in of a daring rescue of a family in terrible weather? I bet it’s the latter. If you live somewhere decidedly flat and travel to climb, hike or otherwise play in the mountains then you may donate to a team that covers the are you visit more often, but generally speaking the teams that receive the most donations are the ones with the highest profiles.

Some teams are quite literally millionaires, or very close. The operational costs of a rescue team can be from £50,000 to over £100,000 depending on what that team needs and what they buy for team members, and that is usually without the hidden costs that are absorbed by team members and their families. Fuel, personal equipment, lost work time and so on. All teams need those donations and you can donate to a more central fund, but this is a relatively new concept still and you can still see the differences in the funds each team raises on the Charity Comission website. It must be said however that the busiest team is not necessarily the richest – Llanberis Mountain Rescue team and Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation share a border and have a similar number of incidents when averaged out over a number of years – but OVMRO are decidedly better off than LMRT. So is it public profile or incident frequency that leads to more donations? Or is the type of incidents responded to that tips the balance?

And does it matter? No. A team isn’t raising money to buy a yacht or to give back to shareholders – a team raises money to buy equipment, train personnel, maintain buildings and do something that nobody else can do.

I have some (limited, and gradually becoming less relevant) experience of this. I was a team member, then Training Officer then Deputy Team Leader of a North Wales Mountain Rescue team, and briefly Operations Officer for the regional association. During the time I was there the team evolved from mainly performing missing person searches in rural and semi-rural areas with the occasional rescue or recovery of a hiker, climber or other person in the mountains. The team actually covered the biggest area of any team in England and Wales, and also responded to requests for assistance from police forces in neighbouring English counties. A quick calculation gives me an area of approximately 8,000km² at the time I joined – later shrunk by the formation of lowland SAR teams in those counties. During my time there the team developed and improved it’s technical rope and water rescue skills and got involved in some ‘interesting’ incidents as a result – flooding and water incidents, rope rescues in quarries and steep slopes on the edge of town centres, major missing person searches that dominated the headlines for months and sever weather incidents like heavy snow. For a couple of evenings one winter the North Wales Mountain Rescue teams were effectively the only ambulance response available for most areas – the local ambulance trust just didn’t have vehicles that could respond. Another evening I sat for hours (snowed in) in the farmhouse, an Airwave radio set in one hand, a couple of phones in another and a laptop on my knee and coordinated the response of several teams in North Wales as they were rescuing stranded motorists from cars on lonely mountain passes, evacuating residents from remote houses and generally being selfless and saving lives. Other colleagues spent days in the North Wales Police control room acting as a point of contact and giving expert advice to all other agencies and performing a role nobody else there could do.

And that’s the answer – Mountain Rescue teams (and their Lowland equivalents) do work that the other emergency services just cannot. If every MRT in the UK decided to close up tomorrow there would be hole in the provision of care, rescue and emergency response that the other services cannot fill. By proving time and again they cannot be matched and by doing what they do well, with professionalism and with virtually no cost to the taxpayer they are bound to be called on to work away from the mountains – and they will respond because that’s what they do, and it helps them continue to do it. You cannot blame emergency services for calling on a resource that is professional, trustworthy, versatile and, crucially, free to fill in the gaps of what they can do. You cannot also blame teams for capitalising on the increased and diverse range of callouts to raise their profile and get more donations. It’s a symbiotic relationship that both parties created – if mountain rescue teams hadn’t continually offered their services and proven that they could do what others could not then they wouldn’t be called to do those things now.

To close, to be critical of frontline emergency services officers because they have expressed concerns over the way they are being used is missing every point. Their disquiet with the role they perform has little to do with the role that UK Mountain Rescue teams have come to perform. Responding to events away from the traditional theatre of mountains, crags and moorland IS the modern face of Mountain Rescue in the UK, it just varies from team to team. To tell them to “leave and become self employed and find out how hard the real world is” ignores the fact that nobody is forcing MRT members to be part of their team – just as nobody forces you to run your own business.

Mountain Rescue teams do something incredible, and so do police officers. If you attack either because of your (voluntary situation), you’re an idiot.

RSBC on Ben Nevis - with Jon Culshaw
VIDEO: The new Paramo Velez Jacket

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.