'New Era' in Search and Rescue Announced

© Colin Wells

Search and rescue as we know it will soon be a thing of the past as the Government today announced the long-anticipated privatisation of helicopter services in the UK. This means the end of RAF and Royal Navy involvement in search and rescue, and the scrapping of the fondly regarded but ageing Sea King helicopters that have assisted civilian Mountain Rescue Teams for decades.

Sea King over Tryfan  © Dan Bailey
Sea King over Tryfan
© Dan Bailey

In their place the country 'is to have a new fleet of faster and more modern search and rescue helicopters', the Government has announced - though they will be run for profit and not owned by Britain at all. In the delivery of quality and value the privatisation of public services has had a mixed record to date; so should hill-goers and those involved in mountain rescue be worried?

'Mountain search and rescue teams across the country appreciate the support of the helicopter rescue crews in getting casualties out of danger and off to hospital as safely and efficiently as possible and we very much hope that the same levels of professionalism and bravery will be available in the years to come' says David Allan, Chairman of Mountain Rescue England and Wales.

The new service will see search and rescue operations provided by contracted civilian crews and the Government has today started the procurement process for a contract lasting around ten years. The plan was announced by written statement in Parliament today by Transport Secretary Justine Greening, and also heralded as a 'new era' by a Department for Transport press release.

Under existing arrangements, search and rescue is provided jointly by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) - operating a fleet of Sea King helicopters from eight military bases, with a further four civilian bases operated under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The new arrangements will see the end of military involvement in a dedicated helicopter search and rescue service.

'This will allow the Armed Forces to focus their activity on front-line operations and enable the MoD to meet its previously announced intention to retire its fleet of Sea Kings by March 2016' says the Department for Transport press release.

Shipping Minister Mike Penning said:

'Every day around the UK, people undertake a range of activities where knowing there's a reliable search and rescue service if something goes wrong is absolutely vital.'

'The current arrangements have served us well for decades, and we are grateful to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force for their great dedication in helping deliver an exemplary search and rescue service over the years. But we cannot ignore the fact that, after their sterling service to our country, the Sea Kings are nearing the end of their life and it is time to look to the future. Commercial operations are nothing new in this area - the MCA's search and rescue functions have been provided on a contract basis for almost thirty years - and this system has served us well. This new, long-term contract will see the UK served by some of the most modern, well-equipped helicopters in the world.'

Quite a claim; however no contract has yet been awarded and these 'most modern' aircraft are for now merely putative.

Under the plans published today, search and rescue operations at RAF Boulmer would end in 2015 and at Portland when the MCA contract expires during 2017. The winning bidder will be then be expected to operate from ten locations around the UK, but provide at least the same level of service as at present.

Today's announcement follows the cancellation of a previous search and rescue helicopter procurement in February this year. Under these former proposals, search and rescue would have been provided by a commercial operator through a Private Finance Initiative using a combination of military and civilian crews. The project was cancelled following the discovery of irregularities in the bidding process.

The Government expects to award this new contract in early 2013 to give the future service provider time to mobilise the new capability. In her statement to Parliament Ms Greening was upbeat about the future:

'Bidders for the future service will be able to put forward options which will utilise a mixed fleet of modern helicopters based on the capabilities required at each of the bases (such as range, carrying capacity and endurance). The services will be capable of delivery by different contractors providing complementary services.'

'The introduction of a modern fleet of fast, reliable helicopters will lead to major improvements in the capability available from the present mix of helicopters. Modern helicopters operating from 10 full-time bases can not only continue to meet all current service requirements but also provide faster flying times to a large part of the UK search and rescue region, as well as providing a more reliable service. This will therefore be reflected in the new contract.'

'Looking forward, we are confident that, building on nearly 30 years of civilian service provided under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency, a fully civilian service will be able to maintain the same standards in the future.'

The taxpayer has been spared the up-front cost of replacing the Sea King fleet, but only time will tell whether the new arrangement will deliver a truly cost effective - and effective - service.

Sea King over Napes, Lake District  © Colin Wells
Sea King over Napes, Lake District
© Colin Wells, Oct 1994

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28 Nov, 2011
Was there any detail provided about the nature of the service to be provided to civilian rescue services such as the MRT, and whether there would be any cost implication? I might be being overly pessimistic, but it's hard to read about this significant change without wondering about all the calls over the years for outdoor users to have insurance...
29 Nov, 2011
"I might be being overly pessimistic, but it's hard to read about this significant change without wondering about all the calls over the years for outdoor users to have insurance..." My thoughts exactly. I may have missed something, but I don't see how a profit based company will be providing an entirely free service to outdoor users in need. The concern I have about insurance would be that it surely can't be compulsory? I was a student for around 6 years, and could barely afford car insurance etc let alone 'outdoor insurance'. What would happen if I were to take a tumble and need air lifting? It will be interesting to see how this all pans out.
29 Nov, 2011
RIP.. a great loss of a phenomenal service, provided by dedicated, well trained, incredibly brave crews. Never mind the insurance, it's the Health and Safety we should be concerned about. Military crews will push all possible limits to get to a customer, but will a service operated by a private company, deliver the same results in marginal conditions..? Only if the risk assessment allows I guess. If we (the government) would only bite the bullet and provide the forces with a new aircraft, I'm sure the crews would be able to carry on the good work for another 50 yrs.. I'd certainly rather pay for the helicopters through my tax than the huge bill I've just had for Northern Rock.. especially when the cheeky bastards can still afford to sponsor a football team. Makes me sick. At least there'll be some more jobs for ex aircrew to fill when they are made redundant. Thanks and well done lads and lasses... You'll be sadly missed.
29 Nov, 2011
So what's the difference between range and endurance then?
29 Nov, 2011
Having had two friends rescued by sea kings over the years, I have an enormous amount of respect for the work they do. (I would add that I was in the same location and came to thier aid, but was not climbing with them.) This debate links into larger question about the 'phsyche' of those going out on the hill. There appears to be a band of poorly informed, inadequately skilled hill goers who are also willing to push thier own limits...putting the air crews in jeopardy. Should we really be asking members of air crews to put thier lives at risk for these people? I feel positive about the change in many respects, it will make people think critically before they make decisions, go out on the hill equipped with the right gear and skills. A payment system has been working the alps for decades and insurance from the Austrian alpine club for example is only £30 per year. The BMC might take up this position in the UK? For me, I would rather see soldiers on the front line properly equipped and safeguarded (irrespective of whether or not we should be in the middle east in the first place!) And to pay a small amount per year and make the right decisions using my skills and judgement out on the hills.
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