Privatising Search and Rescue


The UK Government is currently looking to replace the existing Search and Rescue (SAR) service, run by a combination of RAF, Royal Navy and Coastguard helicopters, with a privatised version. At the moment the UK Government is seeking companies to tender for the contract. As taxpayers we already pay for the existing SAR service, and if privatised we will pay for the new one as well, albeit the work will be carried out by a private contractor. To me it is a dangerous and unnecessary move. Unfortunately, as this was proposed by Labour and is now being pursued by the Tories, I’d say it was likely that this will be implemented, unless there is a real uproar caused amongst voters themselves, as happened with the proposals to sell off woodlands in England and Wales.

One thing that is stopping that is, in my view, that many people are mixing up the subject of SAR with Mountain Rescue. SAR exists as part of the UK’s maritime rescue obligations. That it can be tasked to assist mountain rescue efforts is fortunate, but it isn’t it’s primary role. The experience gained by the crews tasked to assist in these rescues cannot be quantified, and could never be recreated in training.

Mountain rescue is the remit of the police. It is their decision whether to ask the MRT’s to assist them. However I wonder what percentage of people who want Mountain Rescue ask for the police first? I think there is an ignorance amongst many people who confuse MR with SAR, and If the actions of some are the benchmark, they will ask for MR and expect to be picked up by chopper. Most years there will be a few stories in the press about people who go into the hills badly prepared for the journey they undertake, only to have to be rescued by MR, often supported by SAR services. Even worse are those who call up for the mountain rescue to come and get them off the hill because they are tired/ or late. On occasion, on being given instructions in how to get off the hill safely, some have been known to dig their heels in and refuse, expecting instead to be collected by helicopter, as if it is a big yellow taxi. Situations like this have led to some people, even within the outdoors community, calling for anyone who uses the hills to have mandatory insurance. I think this is a very dangerous road to go down. Who gets to define what qualifies for a free rescue and what doesn’t? Should people like farmers and gamekeepers, who often live and work in remote areas have to pay extra because in all likelihood if they suffer an accident it will not be an ambulance which comes to their aid but a helicopter? What about in winter when places normally reachable by road are cut off and SAR helicopters are sent to respond. Should they also have to pay extra premiums. I don’t believe they should. I haven’t even touched on rescue on water either, which opens up another can of worms. As it is a police matter, it is my view that should the MRT think the call out is unnecessary, the police should perhaps look at charging the individuals with wasting police time. But to ask all those responsible people who use the hills to have to insure themselves for rescue, while at the same time paying the tax which pays for that very service is just not acceptable. I wonder how people would react to the concept of privatising the ambulance service, or requiring that pedestrians all have insurance, as they sometimes cause accidents through carelessness or stupidity.

Another thing is that privatisation has never been the greatest success in this country. When private companies and shareholders become involved we have to ask, will corners be cut to maximise profits? Worse, what will happen if that company goes bust? No rescues while in administration? Virgin Search and Rescue? Or God forbid Easy Rescue! “Sorry sir, your rucksack is over the baggage allowance limit. Would you like to pay £50 to upgrade to our all inclusive rescue package, or will we just leave your bag on the mountain?”

We have an outstanding search and rescue helicopter service paid for through taxation. We are now being asked to accept a substitute service, still paid for by taxation, that many people, particularly within MRT and SAR itself, feel is off a lesser standard. That’s the real issue, and there’s a danger that in the confusion of the debate, that we lose sight of that, and the military SAR at the same time.

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4 Responses to Privatising Search and Rescue

  1. Well said – especially:
    “As it is a police matter, it is my view that should the MRT think the call out is unnecessary, the police should perhaps look at charging the individuals with wasting police time.”

    I think if folks dig their heels in when they don’t actually need rescuing and have been given advice to get them off the hill, they should be left 24 hours to rethink their course of action before anyone even thinks of coming to get them. I’m sure they’d soon act on the advice they were given then, when it got cold and dark!

  2. Goaty's News says:

    This was taken from my local rag, it’s targetted at readers in Devon, but does make some interesting observations…..
    Critics warn of risk to lives if search and rescue is taken over by civilians

    “More lives will be lost unless the Government halts plans to privatise the UK’s military search-and-rescue helicopter service, a report has claimed.

    Search-and-rescue professionals, doctors, mountain-rescue volunteers, workers in the maritime industry and people who have been saved fear a new civilian service will not be as effective as the RAF and Royal Navy pilots and crew.

    Plans to cut two of the 12 search-and-rescue bases dotted around Britain’s coastline will leave some areas exposed, it is claimed, and potentially parts of the South West coast as Portland in Dorset loses its helicopter cover in 2017.

    Whoever takes over Britain’s SAR service will be expected to operate from ten locations, including North Devon and West Cornwall.

    The plan could result in rescue helicopters being moved from their current homes at RNAS Culdrose, near Helston, and RMB Chivenor, near Braunton – but they will have to remain in the area.

    According to a report in The Guardian, critics say the new service will include fewer and, in some cases, smaller helicopters that operate over shorter ranges. There are fears that pilots could be barred by the new contractor from flying in harsh weather conditions, particularly in mountainous areas.

    But the biggest unknown, the report says, is how effective civilian pilots will be in the rescue role, compared with their military counterparts who have been involved in SAR for 70 years.

    Louise Ellman, chairman of the Commons transport select committee, said: “There is still concern about the possible risk to life by the change. I would like the process halted. I am disturbed there has been no proper consultation.”

    The government will announce this spring which company or companies will be charged with providing helicopters and staff for ten years from 2016. It says the military’s ageing Sea King helicopters will retire in 2016. Ministers argue that faster, more efficient helicopters will provide an even better service and new civilian crews will be as effective as military personnel.

    Bill Whitehouse, chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, told the newspaper: “There’s concern whether the smaller aircraft will be able to do everything the Sea King can.

    “Obviously there’s nervousness when you see change coming. We’re happy with what we’ve got.”

    As reported previously in the Western Morning News, there are anxieties about the closure of Portland, which is currently run by civilians for the coastguard.

    The Department for Transport believes the area can be covered from Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire, Chivenor and Culdrose.

    But Richard Drax, Tory MP for South Dorset, has branded the removal of the Portland service a “sheer act of folly”.

    The Guardian said he claimed sources within the current SAR service had predicted that up to eight more lives a year could be lost if the base were closed.

    Mr Drax has said the changes are being rushed through without enough consultation because a previous plan to set up a new SAR service involving both civilians and the military collapsed in 2011. Tens of thousands of people have signed petitions calling for Portland to be saved.

    A DfT spokesman said: “The future service will provide comprehensive search-and-rescue helicopter coverage for the UK. Utilising a fleet of modern, state-of-the-art helicopters, the service will operate from ten bases, and modelling shows that the speed of the new fleet will improve average flight times to incidents by approximately 20%.”” – Western Morning News (Monday, February 04, 2013)

    More here about SAR privatisation:

  3. I have seen first hand the work that the RAF SAR does and I’ve gotta say that it really opened up my eyes. I spent an afternoon with them on a training sortie in the Falkland Islands last year when I witnessed them perform some amazing flying skills and now I know what it feels like to be winched up from a mountain peak! I find it incredibly sad that yet again we see our government privatising another highly skilled military option.

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