How to join a Mountain Rescue team…
Whilst doing that awful but necessary thing of trawling through a long list of social media feeds earlier this week I came across this blog post from the Ordnance Survey – ‘Become a Search and Rescue Volunteer’.
At first glance, it seems to be all OK – references to a wide range of SAR volunteering opportunities and agencies, with references to the experiences and training policies of those agencies. All good.
Apart from the bits which are either made up, poorly researched (hopefully the author was presented with duff info) or just complete cobblers…
I spent the best part of a decade in a Mountain Rescue team in North Wales. I have blogged about it previously and occasionally we make reference to a certain skill or anecdote to demonstrate a point when teaching on a course. During my time in MR, I became the Training Officer and eventually a Deputy Team Leader so oversaw the recruitment procedures of both the team I was a member of, and other teams, for a number of years. I want to make clear here that my contribution to UK Mountain Rescue team world was insignificant – there are hundreds out there who have done a quarter-century or more volunteering for MRTs around the country. I did have a beard though…
As we occasionally get asked about joining an MRT by clients and others we work with, I think that my experience (and the experiences of our staff) would be valuable to those of you who are looking to join a mountain rescue team in the UK. I don’t claim that the guide below is definitive, but hopefully I have captured all of the relevant points. This guide is based on my experiences in an Mountain Rescue England and Wales team but most of the points should be relevant to Lowland SAR and other volunteer SAR teams.
1. Ask the team
This might seem obvious, but go and speak to your local team. If you don’t have a local team then you might have to move… (I do know people who have moved areas to be part of a team!).
Each team is an individual charity, and member of a regional organisation (which is also a charity) which in turn is a member of a Mountain Rescue England and Wales. Currently MREW is still largely a guidance and coordination body, representing the member teams at a national level and providing some centralised funding and training opportunities and advice on legal matters. As such, each team is (mostly) a law unto itself, with a unique identity and structure. The identity of the team is often created by the history of the team and the types of callout (‘job’) it is asked to assist with. In North Wales there are 6 MRTs, and each one is culturally distinct from its neighbours. The experience one would have joining one team would vary noticeably from the experience of joining another, even though their bases may be less than 5 miles apart as the crow flies…
By seeking out the members of a team (don’t stalk them, they don’t like that) then you will have the best chance of finding out directly what the recruiting procedures for that team are, when they recruit, what their requirements are and so on. For example, the team I was a member of required a good basic outdoor skillset (navigation, basic ropework, good fitness, good personal skills) plus the ability to turn up to 75% of training sessions (roughly 45 per year) and to assist with fundraising etc. The neighbouring team required a much higher personal technical ability but less in the way of commitment of time.
The best places to speak to the team you are looking to join are through their website (look for ‘Secretary’), their social media or by looking for places the team will be publicly displaying, such as a fundraising or publicity event. The worst times are:
- During a callout (this happened to me, whilst packaging a casualty into a stretcher prior to a helicopter evacuation!)
- In the pub – often the team will retire to their local after a callout or training session to unwind. Probably not the best time to be asking searching questions…
Teams are used to being asked these questions – often you will get re-directed to a certain page of their website or asked to submit a form. Most teams only recruit once a year so it may be several months before you hear anything more about your application.
2. Look at your own skills
Now you have (hopefully) found out what is likely to be required of you then you can examine what your skills are. Most teams have a multi-stage recruitment procedure, with an interview, practical skill assessment and probationary period before you are taken on as a full trainee. You will normally get good notice of these assessments/interviews, so use the time wisely. As above, the standards required for a hill recruit will vary from team to team, but the normal desired level for the ‘perfect’ recruit is:
- The ability to navigate in all weathers to an 8-figure grid reference from another 8-figure grid reference. This is to 10m accuracy, and slightly higher than normally required for outdoor navigation. This is the level we teach on our Intermediate Navigation course.
- The ability to tie several knots – including variations on the Figure of Eight, Clove Hitch, Italian Hitch, Bowline and French and Classic Prussiks.
- Knowing how to ‘look after yourself’ in the mountains. You are the people who come to assist those who have buggered things up – you are worse than useless if you don’t know how to regulate your own body temperature through use of your kit, how to cross a steep grass slope safely and just how to cope with poor weather and still function.
- How to work under direction as part of a team.
- Have a reasonable level of fitness. You don’t have to be a mountain athlete, but you will be expected to walk uphill with a reasonably heavy rucksack (15-18kg) without stopping every five minutes. If you can get from, say, Pen y Pass car park to the summit of Snowdon and back in less than 4 hours then you are in the right area.
- How to do all of the above in the dark. At 3am. When you have to be at work at 8:30am.
It is not crucial that you have ALL of the above skills, but it is a good target to aim for. The team will normally have a training procedure to ‘fill in the gaps’, whilst also giving you the specific technical skills required. In the weeks before my initial interview I was manicly practising my navigation whilst wearing a heavy rucksack. I kept a bit of rope by the toilet and practised my knots regularly – even though I had been climbing for several years! I soon discovered that the ropework in Mountain Rescue had little in common with climbing, and much more in common with industrial rope access.
3. Look at the jobs the team gets
A common ‘mistake’ made by prospective recruits at interviews I helped to conduct was that they knew little of what our team actually did. They had a general idea of Mountain Rescue being all about helicopters and hanging off cliffs, whereas the reality for our team was lots and lots of searching fields and woodland at night. In the rain. Whilst the missing person was happily asleep elsewhere, oblivious to the drama they were causing.
You can normally get a good feel for the types of jobs the team gets from its website, social media feeds and occasionally an ‘annual report’ it may publish. The teams that actually get involved in technical rescues on big hills every weekend are relatively few – most teams deal with missing person incidents, spot-pickups from rolling moorland and even water rescues. By having a good knowledge of the team and the jobs they get you can demonstrate that you are fully aware of what you intend to volunteer for, and what the team expects of you.
4. Speak to your family and employer
This is a big one, and often overlooked. When you join a Mountain Rescue team, your family join with you. People tend to get into trouble at mealtimes, just before bedtime and when you have booked to spend the day together with your significant other. Although it may be very exciting for you, your family may soon get tired of you buggering off into the night every time your phone goes bleep. You also have to keep a rucksack packed and in the boot of the car, your phone close to hand (most teams use SMS to alert their team members, not pagers these days) and maybe limit your evening alcohol intake. Whilst your attendance is not expected 100% of the time, most teams monitor attendance at training and callouts as there is little point having an experienced, skilled and valuable team member on the books who cannot turn up. Everybody in the team is in the same situation – which is why the inability to juggle ‘team life’ with real life is often cited as the reason for somebody having to resign. It was the same for me – there came a point where I had to decide if I was going to put more and more time (already 20+hrs a week) into ‘team life’ or into the business, and the business won.
Your employer may need to be supportive of you joining MR as you will be occasionally losing lots of sleep to the search for a missing person, or add the extra mileage to a company car. Most people in Mountain Rescue are self-employed, shift-workers or retired. We even developed a term for those who were able to turn up to jobs in the middle of the day during the working week – “Silver MR”…
5. Look at your bank balance
Mountain Rescue is expensive. Again, this varies from team to team, but usually you are expected to mostly supply your own kit. You will probably be outfitted with waterproofs, fleece and other protective clothing and maybe a helmet and harness. Your boots, rucksack, headtorch etc etc are usually down to you to provide. Fuel is rarely reimbursed (teams cannot afford to normally, particularly those with large areas to cover and few donations) nor is wear-and-tear on your vehicle. I calculated that being in Mountain Rescue cost me approximately £2-3,000 per year. Unless you live within running distance of the MR base, chances are that you will need an income of a certain level in order to take part.
6. Put in the time and be prepared to wait
For most teams, there is a waiting period between recruitment and actually hitting the ‘callout list’. This might be a few weeks, it might be a few months. It normally becomes frustrating, particularly in that period between feeling like you have reached the required standard, but the team still wants more from you. This is quite a good training experience for being an operational member – the saying “hurry up and wait” could have been coined just for volunteer SAR jobs. It is normal to go through the rush and hurry of getting to an RV, only to discover that crucial information still needs to be gathered before you can be deployed…
7. Look to the future
Okay, maybe this one is more about what happens after you join. Well, there are a number of ways you can progress within the Mountain Rescue world in the U.K., as loosely structured as it is. You can become trained to a high level of technical skill in rope and water rescue, learn advanced remote-area first aid procedures, study the mathematics and statistics of missing person behaviour or just become really, really good at loading and unloading a Land Rover.
There is a lot more I could say, but the guide above reflects the experiences of both my own time in MR and that of my staff, my friends and others we have spoken to. Most agree that it was much more involved and committing than they first anticipated, and that they had to adjust their expectations as they went. They also agree that they largely enjoyed the experience, but for one reason or another there came the time for them to leave and move on.
I hope some of the above helps.