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Mountain rescue teams spark row over helicopter support

Crews accuse the MCA, the ARCC, the DfT and Police Scotland of a 'disregard for safety'.

Coastguard: Search and rescue helicopter operation.
Coastguard: Search and rescue helicopter operation. © STV

Mountain rescue teams have criticised a number of agencies over their "disregard for safety" during helicopter operations.

In a letter written by Glencoe, Tayside, Lochaber and Cairngorm crews, members hit out at Police Scotland, Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA), Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) and Department for Transport (DfT).

The teams claim they can no longer accept an "apparent casual disregard for the safety of the volunteers" during search and rescue helicopter operations.

Members wrote: "As the teams prepare to undertake difficult and potentially dangerous rescues in such winter conditions the teams have decided that they can no longer accept an apparent casual disregard for the safety of the volunteers shown by the agencies coordinating search and rescue helicopter operations."

The letter also accused the agencies of repeatedly refusing to assist teams with the recovery of bodies of people killed in the mountains claiming they argue the deceased are "not persons in distress".

'The agencies have repeatedly refused to assist teams with the recovery of bodies of people killed in the mountains.'
Glencoe, Tayside, Lochaber and Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Teams

It read: "The first issue in an emotionally sensitive one, but, in the view of the teams, the position of the agencies is wholly unacceptable.

"The agencies have repeatedly refused to assist teams with the recovery of bodies of people killed in the mountains.

"The view of the agencies concerned has apparently been that the deceased are not 'persons in distress' and therefore assistance with recovery is not offered.

"The result of this has included examples such as - one incident where volunteer teams had to undertake an incredibly dangerous lower of the stretcher and team managing the body down a narrow gully, dodging rockfall whilst the aircraft was instructed to standby.

Operation: Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team.
Operation: Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Team. Cairngorm MRT / crop

"The helicopter was only to react in the event one of the rescuers was injured.

In another apparent incident, the rescue crews claimed one team had to carry equipment to recover a body thousands of feet up a mountain on the hottest day of the year.

They wrote: "Even though assistance was requested it was again instructed not to assist, not even to carry the equipment.

"Ironically, while the recovery was ongoing another incident occurred within a few hundred metres and when the helicopter responded to this incident, the crew were surprised that they had not even been informed of the teams request for assistance."

The letter added: "In any of these incidents the priority should surely be to minimise the distress and suffering for the families and give the maximum respect for the deceased.

"The teams feel that the understanding shown by the agencies as to exactly all that is entailed in the above examples is severely lacking."

A spokesperson from MCA responded to the letter saying the agency "values and appreciates" the work of all volunteers in search and rescue.

'The teams have decided that they can no longer accept an apparent casual disregard for the safety of the volunteers shown by the agencies coordinating search and rescue helicopter operations.'
Glencoe, Tayside, Lochaber and Cairngorm Mountain Rescue Teams

They added: "While the recovery of bodies positively confirmed as deceased is not strictly speaking a search and rescue mission, it is a mission HM Coastguard may support under some circumstances.

"Our crews, when tasked by the helicopter tasking authority - the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) - and in conjunction with the relevant coordinating authority, will attempt to assist the recovery of a dead body if the level of risk to the crews and their passengers, as judged by the ARCC and duty crew, is not considered to be too great.

"This is a dynamic risk assessment conducted on a case-by-case basis taking into account the level of risk. We also need to consider the wider impact to our service in diverting critical lifesaving equipment and personnel.

"We may need to delay such a recovery during our busier periods."

Police Scotland said it was keen to reach a solution with the rescue crews.

Superintendent Carol McGuire from Operational Support said: "Police Scotland is the co-ordinating authority for any land based search and rescue incident in Scotland and can only do this due to the ongoing support from all mountain rescue teams for which we are grateful.

"We are in ongoing dialogue with the ISMR and all partner agencies in an effort to reach a mutually agreeble solution."

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