Highlands and Islands Labour MSP Rhoda Grant put Nicola Sturgeon on the spot this afternoon by asking what the Scottish Government was doing to support Scottish mountain rescue teams.
Volunteer teams from Glencoe, Cairngorm, Tayside and Lochaber contacted the Highlands and Islands MSP about the lack of backup from agencies involved in mountain rescue.
Mrs Grant was told that 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.
Volunteers can also end up undertaking difficult and dangerous rescues, often in remote locations, over many hours, requiring large amounts of heavy technical gear, only to find that, once the casualty is on board, air support is withdrawn.
At First Minister’s Questions in Holyrood, Mrs Grant paid tribute to the essential work of the mountain rescue volunteers who put their lives at risk to save others.
“Therefore, it is sad that these teams believe they are ‘seen as expendable by the agencies’.
“If they were recreational climbers they would be airlifted off the hill.
“Can I ask the First Minister if Police Scotland are able to task these rescue services to airlift mountain rescue teams on and off the mountains?
“If so, will she ensure that they do that, especially when volunteers are:
- carrying out the distressing task of retrieving bodies of those who have sadly perished on the hills
- or when their time back to base is excessive
- or indeed when they are carrying equipment that poses a danger to their own safety
“Will she make sure that these agencies support and protect our mountain rescue teams?
Ms Sturgeon thanked Mrs Grant for raising the issue and said she did not accept that mountain rescue teams were dispensable, praising their vital job.
The First Minister said she was aware about concerns raised surrounding the current search and rescue helicopter support arrangements.
Scottish Government officials have raised these concerns with Coastguard agency and, although Police Scotland have legislative responsibility for search and rescue in Scotland, Ms Sturgeon said ‘the lever for change’ around search and rescue helicopter support remained with the UK Government.
She added Police Scotland was introducing its helicopter as last resort for body recovery and the Coastguard agency was due to meet mountain rescue representatives. The First Minister will be asking the relevant Minister to write to Mrs Grant with more detail
Afterwards Mrs Grant said a change in the terms of the contract for air support for mountain rescue could ensure there was no comprise when it comes to the safety of volunteer teams.
“I will certainly be keeping track of this, especially as we enter the winter months and a busy period for rescue volunteers,” she said.
“I was totally shocked to hear of the lack of back-up from agencies concerned and that the service hasn’t lived up to the promise of being the same or better than what was operating before.
“As a Highlands and Islands MSP, I am extremely conscious of the life-saving work these volunteers carry out, often in horrendous weather and at risk to their own lives.
“I am reminded of this every time I see people rescued from the hills or, sadly, when I see bodies recovered.”
She stressed teams have told her they have excellent relationships with helicopters crews and any criticism was aimed at the coordination of the service.
Mrs Grant said understanding the respective roles of the various agencies that coordinate Search and Rescue helicopter operations is complex. With the Marine and Coastguard Agency, the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre, the Department of Transport and Police Scotland all having roles. Anyone of these can have an input into the decision to deploy, or not deploy, any aircraft to assist teams.