10 things you didn’t know about Mountain Rescue

This blog post is mainly about volunteer Mountain Rescue teams in England and Wales, because that is the area I have direct experience of. But after talking to some international SAR team members I have had the pleasure of working with, there are some aspects that I’m sure they will recognise!

I spent the best part of a decade in a voluntary Mountain Rescue team. By the time I resigned in 2013 I was a Deputy Team Leader, and represented the team and regional organisation at national level on certain issues. This gave me the opportunity to see the way other teams did things, and to notice those areas where ‘MR’ did things differently to other emergency services, and the way that differed from the public perception.

This blog may be controversial for some, but that is not the intention. It was the sort of thing that I always wanted to share with people when I was still a team member, but couldn’t for one reason or another. It is based on my observations from my time – as such it won’t apply to every single team member, and may paint a very simplified picture. My advice is to treat what follows with a certain amount of suspicion, but bear it in mind next time you read about or see Mountain Rescue in the news…

10. You don’t get paid, but it costs you a lot to do

The first part of this may seem obvious – you don’t get paid, but you have to give up your free time and accept a little risk so you can help folk less fortunate than you. The second part – that being in Mountain Rescue is quite expensive – is less obvious. This varies from team to team, but generally you are expected to fund the majority of your personal equipment, all of the fuel/wear and tear for your car (it is very difficult to be in MR without owning a car). This is without the loss of hours at work, the loss of sleep (most weekday callouts happen after dark) and the stress it puts on family life.

A couple of years ago I worked out how much it was costing me to remain in Mountain Rescue, partly through curiosity, but also to help put across the true cost of running the team to potential donors. Including driving to training, driving to meetings and fundraising, driving to callouts (the team I was a member of covered probably the biggest acreage of any team in MREW, to drive from one end to another could take 90 minutes or more), buying and replacing equipment (you had to buy your own harness, helmet, boots, rucksack, basic clothing, head torch, compass, emergency equipment, maps etc) I quickly got to about £2,000 per year. I could have continued but it was worrying that I had made it that far!

Like all charities, Mountain Rescue has to be an equal-opportunities organisation, and no discrimination based on sex, race, gender or any other factor. This doesn’t really apply in terms of income though – you have to have some kind of disposable income to be an active member of a mountain rescue team. I have more than a few friends who have had to leave because of the financial pressures of it all, some with decades of service. This isn’t because of an unwillingness to pay something towards team member costs, it is mainly because teams do not have the funds to do it.

9. It’s like taking on a second job

DSC_0377Money isn’t the only way being in a Mountain rescue team requires a great commitment – you have to give up a certain amount of time too, and probably more than you may think. The team I was in required a 50% attendance at training and callouts. Other teams have different rules, but ours was close to the national average from what I could see. The team trained 4 times a month, and had roughly 70 callouts per year. A callout might be over in 15 minutes, with the missing person being found before we had moved a muscle, or may go on for days (or weeks). Depending on your responsibility within the team you also had to attend a certain number of fundraising events and meetings. When I resigned I was spending on average 5-15 hours per day on Mountain Rescue-related matters. My car always had a fully-packed rucksack and spare clothes, boots and maps in it and I had to watch my mobile phone like a hawk, ready for the SMS that would signify the next callout. People expect it to be all about hanging out of helicopters and running up mountains with stretchers (some teams do much more of that than others though, it must be said), but any organisation that has 50 or so ’employees’, a small fleet of vehicles and lots of specialised equipment requires a decent amount of admin time. This is on top of the fact the team is a charity, and many of the decisions the management of the team make have to allow for this fact. As such, if you arrive in Mountain Rescue with a particular skillset, such as accountant or mechanic then you will find yourself pressed into service in a suitable role – Treasurer or Vehicle Officer for example.

8. It isn’t one big organisation

heli-photoshoot-024-copyThe ‘parent’ organisation for Mountain Rescue teams in in England and Wales is, funnily enough, ‘Mountain Rescue England and Wales (MREW)’. It is a registered charity, and represents the 50+ member teams at a national level. This does not mean that it has much control over the individual teams though – MREW is not like the RNLI with a central management structure and funding. Each team is a charity within its own right, with its own operational structure and methods. The various teams work together under regional associations, and often have a neighbouring team they work closely alongside.This comes a surprise to many – they have heard of ‘the Mountain Rescue’ and expect it to be the same as ‘the Police’ or ‘the Fire Service’. The differences between teams are only really apparent to those who work in or alongside the teams, but they are quite marked. Gradually teams are starting to do certain things in the same way, but it is a process that has required some to be brought around to a new way of doing things, often with great protest. As communication between teams and other emergency services improves they have had to adopt some common working practices to make things run smoothly. Water rescue is the area that probably demonstrates this best, with teams training to the same standard as other UK agencies so they can work together on major incidents.

7. It’s all about the politics

This will vary between teams, and to a greater and lesser degree within the same team as the years progress, but petty politics make up a good deal of the energy that goes into running a Mountain Rescue team. As everybody in a team is a volunteer, with no pay scale or strict hierarchy (in terms of human relationships, not operational matters which tend to run smoothly) then there is room for bickering, arguments and differences of opinion on every subject you can think of. The charitable status of the teams matters to – every decision involving money could be subject to external review in years to come so must be done ‘properly’. I recall an argument about whether we should get three different quotes before buying washing up liquid for the kitchen at the rescue base…Meetings tend to happen in the evenings, and run on for hours. This means you bring the stresses of work and home to an already tense environment, and personalities clash where they probably wouldn’t in a paid working structure. I don’t think you can escape this in the way Mountain Rescue is currently organised, but it can make a difficult job much harder at times. Of course this doesn’t really occur at ‘team member’ level, but the effects of it do trickle down and can affect morale, operational effectiveness and team member retention.

6. Nobody knows what you do

4146949542_dd1402c7b1_o-300x225The main message that MREW and the member teams has tried to put out there to the public is that “we’re all volunteers, we don’t get paid and we’re not funded by the government”. 99% of the public I spoke to in my time in MR assumed that we were all like retained firefighters, or fully-paid employees who sat at the bottom of the mountain with a big yellow helicopter. More alarmingly, this opinion was shared by many in the statutory emergency services. A lot of Fire and Rescue Service officers I spoke to couldn’t really understand how Mountain Rescue worked, were uneasy with the volunteer status, and unwilling to work with us in some cases as a result. I can kind of see their point though – in many worlds ‘volunteer’ is synonymous with ‘well meaning amateur’, implying that there is a professional, paid equivalent out there somewhere.One of my favourite examples of this was a ‘rescue’ on the gentle, grassy sloping side of some Welsh hillock somewhere. The ‘casualty’ (who had been rescued before by the team, and was becoming something of a nuisance) demanded that “as a taxpayer, I should be getting lifted off by a helicopter”. She became rather irate at being informed that as her injury was being ‘slightly cold’ on a Summer evening 500m from a main road she could probably manage to walk down with us – loudly protesting that she paid our wages and would speak to her AM about this.

5. The donations often don’t go to teams that need it

None of the teams (as far as I know) in England and Wales receive government funding as such. Occasionally grants are made from Police or MREW, and big corporate donations are not uncommon. All teams are charities, and none have paid employees.

Some teams are, technically speaking, millionaires though.

Let me explain – how well-known a team is is often down to the number of callouts it gets, and the types of callouts they are. In North Wales for example, one regional newspaper would be sold in an area that 5 or 6 Mountain Rescue teams will cover. The two or three busiest teams may have 10-15 callouts between them in a midsummer weekend – the quieter teams may have one, or none. Which teams will the paper maybe feature a story about? And which teams will people be more likely to know about? It’s effectively branding in reverse – you recognise the name that keeps being put in front of you, so when you come to donate to a team (by doing some sponsored trek or climb), which one are you likely to give it to?

People also donate to teams that have rescued/recovered them or one of their friends or family. As they may live many miles away from the mountains they are likely to be donating to a team based in an area that covers one of the ‘destination’ mountain ranges, like Snowdonia or the Lake District. The busiest teams attract the most donations – and they have a huge outlay to match it, so they need a greater share of the funds – but the quieter teams have to actively fundraise for their money. It may cost between £50,000 and £100,000 per year to run a team, much more if they have to replace a Land Rover (£30,000 with modifications), buy water rescue equipment (about £700 per person), buy new rope rescue gear (£2000-£5000) and so on. A busier year in terms of callouts often means a greater income for the team, and a quiet year is great for mountain safety, but could put the team into serious financial trouble as a result. I always try to encourage people to donate to a quieter team rather than just going for the one they have heard of because it featured on Countryfile…

4. Most of the callouts don’t involve mountains

Despite the name, Mountain Rescue teams in the UK tend to perform an all-round specialist Search and Rescue role. The fact they have to operate in a wide variety of environments, can perform large, detailed and organised searches efficiently and are pretty much self-sufficient in the field has made them the favourite organisation to call for many missing person cases. My first callout was in the town centre and suburbs of a Welsh coastal town, and I have searched industrial units, an abandoned hospital, car parks, housing estates, rivers, forests, mountains, fields, hedgerows, mountains, cliff faces, motorways and even a firing range. A missing person case tends to occur closer to urban and semi-urban areas, as most missing persons are not walkers and climbers but the elderly, very young, mentally or medically unwell. The other major ‘type’ of callout is the despondent, often somebody who has given notice of their intent to do harm to themselves, and then disappeared into the countryside. In the past decade Mountain Rescue teams have become a major part of response to flooding and water rescue incidents across the UK, and their are older examples of teams being used in other major emergencies.

3. Availability, not merit

Selection processes for new team members can be quite tough – maybe 25-30 potential candidates applying each year, whittled down to 6-8 trainees over a month of selection. One of the major factors, as well as fitness, personal skills etc, was the amount of time they could dedicate to the team. This might seem obvious, but if a team is only made up of people with ‘proper’ jobs (unlike mine!) that run 9-5, Monday to Friday then there will be no way the team can properly respond to a callout at 2:30pm on a Tuesday. So a mix of shift workers, the self-employed and retired tend to make up teams. At 8:00pm on a Sunday you are likely to have 20-30 of the 50 team members available, at 4:00am on a Monday, 8 hours later, you might only have 10 because the rest have to be up for the morning commute so can’t turn out. It is one of the major limiting factors of Mountain Rescue response – you never know what you will get! This trickles up to officer positions etc – there is generally some kind of skill requirement, but for everything below Team Leader then you are likely to be running unopposed for a position. Finding somebody who is able to give the huge amount of time and energy it takes to become an Equipment Officer or Training Officer is rare, so they will probably get in regardless of their qualification. This does not mean that if somebody is in that position then they do not deserve to be there – it just means that they may not have had the opportunity to show why they are the right person for the job (Officer positions are normally awarded on election by their peers, so most must think they deserve to be there!).

2. No other organisation can replicate what they do

There are many different faces to the emergency services in the UK – and voluntary agencies like Mountain Rescue and the RNLI are actually quite low down on the scale when it comes to emergency planning and legislation. In the later years of my brief Mountain Rescue career I sat in on many regional meetings of the ‘Local Resilience Forum’. This group is essential to a well-organised response to any type of regional emergency, and the voluntary agencies always had a key role to play – but suffered due to lack of paid staff, not having a ‘manned’ control centre or similar. What was also clear from the wide variety of incidents I was a part of in my time was that the other 999 agencies – Police, Fire, Ambulance – couldn’t immediately replace what Mountain Rescue did. It was not unusual to turn up to an emergency callout – a fallen climber in a quarry say – to find the Fire and Rescue Service arrive at the same time, and there be a brief exchange to decide who had primacy and who would actually perform the rescue. Each service has their own way of doing things, but we always seemed to have the advantage of flexibility and adaptability. My friend likened it to a canoe and a super tanker – a big ship has more capacity and resilience, and more support behind it, but a canoe can turn quickly and get up the small, interesting rivers and streams.

Mountain Rescue in the UK has also been the source of innovations in missing person search strategy, and are called upon to provide specialist search assistance to the Police and other agencies. When you consider that to become a Mountain Rescue Search Manager you have to have several years of experience, then attend a week of training, then develop your skills ‘on the job’. The closest Police equivalent might spend one day of their compulsory training course on missing person search strategy – the bulk of their training being about finding hidden items and anti-terror operations. Although definitely ‘civilian’ in outlook and speech, the way many Mountain Rescue teams operate on the ground is more like the military, and this often became clear in major incidents and training exercises – the ‘Big Three’ of Police, Fire and Ambulance would do their thing (and do it very well), but Mountain Rescue would align itself more with the Army or RAF who were present. If the future of wilderness Search and Rescue in the UK involves paid teams, I suspect it will take more from the military than civilian worlds.

1. It will undergo huge changes in the next 10 years

North Wales SRT courseBecause of all of the factors above, because of the changing way the UK deals with emergencies and Search and Rescue, because of changes in information technology and communications, because of new challenges, Mountain Rescue has to evolve – and is doing so. In the past 5 years big leaps forward have occurred in standardised training, vehicle livery, fundraising, terminology. Some very clever individuals have created invaluable tools, like SARCALL and SARLOC which make the rescuers lives much easier. Closer working ties with other agencies are being built, and the capabilites of Mountain Rescue are being better understood.

I have no idea what will come next, but I suspect the trends of having a unified approach to training and operations, fundraising and publicity will continue. Callouts will continue to rise, and Mountain Rescue will become less about ‘mountains’ and much more about ‘Search and Rescue’, covering all terrains and in all weathers.

Well done folks.
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1 Comment
  1. I thought that was an honest and informative read for someone who is thinking about joining a mountain rescue team in the future. Fantastic. Thank you .

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