Monday, 21 March 2011

Who you gonna call? Errrm, I'm not sure actually!

You wouldn't think that Mountain Rescue would be a competitive world, but it is. I'm not talking about the schoolboy, slightly immature competition about 'who can get to the summit fastest' but between volunteer emergency services, statuatory emergency services and even between teams. Let me explain...

A family walking on a big Welsh mountain (let's say, Snowdon). They have a mishap (a short slip on the summit steps, resulting in a head injury, or slightly-unfit Dad suffers a heart attack) and suddenly the happy day out turns into a bit of a drama.
So what do you do when somebody gets hurt? You call an ambulance. What do you do when somebody gets hurt 900m up a mountain? Well, most people still call for an ambulance. So the 999 dispatcher routes the call to the relevant NHS ambulance control. Now what should happen is that this gets sent to Mountain Rescue team (MR or MRT) through the Police (it is, really, the Police who are in charge or MRTs). Mountain Rescue despatch personnel or request a helicopter through the ARCC at RAF Kinloss. Or both - after all, if the helicopter cannot get there then the evacuation will have to be done in the old-fashioned way.

There used to be issues surrounding this system, as the ambulance services were trying to send road ambulance crews to jobs on Snowdon, Tryfan etc etc. This has improved since the idea of moving Fire, Police and Ambulance control centres to one building...

Great. Good. People in trouble get the best treatment on offer, time is saved and so are lives. Hooray.

In my last blog I wrote about the wide variety of roles that Mountain Rescue teams in North Wales are being called upon to do. Some teams are now much more likely to be searching rural lowlands for a missing person than they are dangling from ropes assissting a stuck climber. This blurring of the lines between traditional roles in the emergency services means that knowing which 'service' is the most appropriate is now quite difficult...

Let's take the above scenario with the family and their mishap, and transfer it over to a smaller, but still-popular hill.

The family may not be as well-equipped as, after all, this is only 'a hill'. Their mishap occurs - a broken ankle from an awkwardly placed trainer on muddy slope - and they call for help. This time an Ambulance is sent out, the crew realise that they cannot drive all of the way and they lock up the van and set out on foot. They cross a stile or two, trying to work out where the family-in-distress is, ford a stream and weave their way about the hillside until they come across their casualty. Now as wet and cold as the people they are out to help, the ambulance crew try to work out how to get their casualty to safety. Air Ambulance? Ah, they don't fly in the mist. RAF Sea King? Bugger, it's busy elsewhere (or broken down again, more likely). What about those Mountain Rescue people? Lets see if they can help... So the team is called, have to locate the ambulance crew and the family (neither knows exactly where they are) and evacuate them as they have done dozens of times before. The ambulance crew is gently reminded about their capabilities on the walk back to the ambulance.

The above scenario will be familiar to almost every MRT in Wales and England, to greater or lesser extremes. I know of one team that had to treat the ambulance crew for hypothermia as well as treating and evacuating the injured fell-runner. The upshot is that people will assume that the appropriate people will be tasked to the appropriate job... but this is heavily dependent on the definition of 'appropriate' by those tasking resources. Calling mountains 'country parks' doesn't help, nor does services blindly following 8-minute response guidelines without thinking about the needs of the casualty.

The new DEFRA flood response framework means that Fire Service, Mountain Rescue, RNLI, Coastguard and other emergency services can work together on flooding incidents like Cockermouth and know exactly what the capabilities of the man or woman stood next to them are. In theory...

In reality, the Fire and Rescue service will try and run everything themselves as they perceive all 'flood rescues' as being under their rule (which is kind of true: Fire and Rescue Services Act 2004). When there is a major 'disaster' we will probably see MRTs being left out of it until somebody senior who has worked with us before notices our absence.

This protectionism is then often transferred to river rescues which is another area of potential conflicted between MRTs, whose water rescue specialists are trained to the same level as the Fire Service, but are also often kayakers, canoe paddlers etc etc and have a better understanding of the river environment. They can maybe read the water conditions more reliably and can also integrate with any rope rescue systems set up to get the casualty safely out of gorges or from a steep waterfall.

The same story could be repeated for Air Ambulance, Coastguard SAR teams, RNLI and other organisations that will be clamouring to 'get the job' as a daring and heroic rescues means something that can be put into tomorrow's newspapers, which in turn will be mean an increase in donations. If one organisation strays onto another's 'patch' then you can be sure that somebody will be on the phone, demanding to know why they were not called instead...

The upshot of all this is that a lot of fragmentisation goes on, duplication of services and a need to visibly justify the huge donations that some organisations get (Air Ambulance?) whilst other organisations manage to do a sterling job on a shoestring budget, often at the expense of the volunteers who put their lives at risk. (The personal cost of volunteering for a Mountain Rescue team can be prohibitive at times, think about the cost of fuel, lost time at work, wear and tear on equipment, none of which the team can fund. This can run into thousands per annum.)

How do we fix it? The best answer would be to start from scratch, set up a national network of 'Search and Rescue' teams with responsibility of searching for missing persons, rescuing people a certain distance from safe road access, water rescue, hazardous ground (including collapsed building/earthquake/terrorist scenarios?) and rope rescues. Staffed by retained team members, a very high service to the casualty is maintained whilst also saving money overall and meaning that charitable donations can go towards helping others, not taking up the slack left over by other emergency services.

Got to go, pager has just gone off again...


  1. fascinating insight, thanks. good luck out there, too

  2. great read!! was up Eilidir Fawr, Carnedd y Filiast, Foel-Goch and Y Garn yesterday and kept seeing a helicopter zipping through the glens what was it doing was it just seeing how many people are on the hills? it was between 10 and 11 am and then they were out again around 1 until 2.
    I thought those things were expensive to run

  3. Mackenzie - Depending on the heli, it could have been the Police one, Air Ambulance or one of the many RAF ones on a training flight. They don't tend to fly around looking for casualties, they wait to be called as they are, as you say, expensive to fly.
    The RAF use the mountains of Snowdonia to train, especially for flying in difficult terrain etc. You sometimes get Chinooks doing spot-landings on Foel Goch etc.

    If it was a tiny thing that looks like a big dragonfly then it could be the Robinson R-22 (a private aircraft) that is often seen disturbing the peace! :-)

  4. yeah,

    it was black with a yellow roof I think.
    was really loud and kinda ruined the lovely outdoors!!! untill it went away.