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Widecombe History Group Talk
Dartmoor Search & Rescue talk by Alan Pewsey 6/4/16
Widecombe History Group
The Dartmoor Search& Rescue (DRS) started in 1968 in Tavistock, when local enthusiastic walkers were often called on by police to help other walkers who needed help. The Group was formalised shortly thereafter. The Mountain Rescue England & Wales (MREW) video highlighted the statistics that MREW encounter each year:
2500 call outs each year
44 MR teams & 9 cave rescue teams across England & Wales make up the service. Some have dual roles.
2800 men & 700 women – all volunteers
160 vehicles – inc 110 landrovers
200 emergency shelters
3680 safety helmets
4600m of rope
All of the volunteers commit AT LEAST 5hrs per week, which amounts to 780 man hours per year.
All of this costs around 2.5 – 3.5 million per year to run.
8% of this is government funding
92% is from donations.
MREW provide a world-class service. The rate of call-outs is steadily increasing and there have recently been a high level of fatalities, especially in the Lake District.
MREW are called to help people in a range of situations, from: people & children who are lost or injured, to people who are despondent (often suicidal), and the vulnerable (often Alzheimer sufferers). Many of the victims are climbers, horse riders, cyclists, walkers and kayakers, however there has been an increase in call-outs to help the despondent / vulnerable.
DRS is made up of 4 separate teams. Plymouth, Tavistock, Okehampton & Ashburton.
Ashburton’s team is 75% men 25% women and the all do the same job. They have approximately 160 volunteers. DRS are on call 24/7, 365 days a year. All of them have day jobs and all are of course volunteers. Some are medics & doctors, some are teachers, some work in IT, or are builders and there is even a marine biologist. Their ages range from 30-60. There are also plenty of volunteers who are over 60, who often work in support roles.
DRS are called by the emergency services (ES). DRS group have an increasing number of call-outs from 80 in 2012 to 130 in 2015. Andy remembered there being 3-4 call-outs in the 1980s. DRS used to mainly deal with 10 Tors teams and events and D of E teams. They now cover the whole of Devon – rural, urban, from the moor to the coast. Last year 50% of the calls were outside of Dartmoor.
The DRS were asked to send a team to help with the flooding in Yorkshire recently. 52 members went to assist. Some of the rise in call-outs is a direct result of increased flooding. ES increasingly use MREW teams to aid them across the country in these sorts of situations.
A typical incident would start with a call to the DRS, usually from the police. It can take up to an hour for the team to assemble at the rendezvous point – usually where the person was last seen. It might have a team working for 6-8 hours and then if the situation isn’t resolved, a second team is brought in. 6-8 hours may not sound like a long time, but the skills and concentration involved in searching for someone is mentally and physically exhausting. Imagine searching for someone who doesn’t want to be found. The terrain in woods and across the moors, mean that searching high and low is a necessity and the teams often have to search through bracken, gorse and brambles – no more than 5m apart from each other to make sure that they couldn’t miss someone.The team will then report to the leader to give a ‘probability of detection’, to the best of their ability, if the person hasn’t been found. In certain areas, the terrain can be so difficult. If unsuccessful, the team is often asked to go back and try to raise a 70% probability to 85%. Search dogs often used to help find victims. Search dogs become part of the MREW when a fully trained MREW volunteer volunteers their dog! This amazing team undergo training together to acquire the skillsets required to be a search dog! They are air-scenting dogs, not using the clothes as many might think. The dogs go with their handler and sniff the air for scents. Then, when they find a scent, the dog rushes off to check if it is someone in distress. If it is they bark and return to the handler to indicate they have found the person, then go back and forth leading the handler to the person. Amazingly it is all a big game to the dog and the reward is their favourite treat or toy!
Becoming a member of DRS or any MR team is a massive commitment. Members are expected to commit to training every Wednesday, fundraising activities, training weekends and any additional training that may be required and that’s on top of any actual call-outs. They have 18-30 members on call-out duty, every day & night.
Ashburton currently has 8 trainees. The training process normally starts in November, with a trainee selection day. This includes a tour of the rescue centre and equipment, followed by a navigation assessment in the afternoon. The trainee must have some abilities in this field, but the DRS will provide further training as required. The navigation assessment will finish after dark. The team will then select about 5-6 people from about 15-20 potential. The training process then takes between 12-18 months and the trainees are given a folder of training tasks (e.g. medical, water training etc.), which they need to complete and be signed off. At the end of this, there is an all-night assessment, where 2 trainees are put through a high pressure navigation test by 2 team members. The good news is that after this, they get a couple of hours of sleep on the moor, followed by a debrief at a pub!
The training may seem extreme, and indeed, it is very gruelling, but team members need to be able to carry a stretcher and navigate at the same time, as well as working under such high pressure, and horrendous weather conditions. The team priorities are: Self, team, bystanders then casualties.
Once someone is fully trained, the training doesn’t stop there and members often choose to specialise, e.g. water, caves or ropes & rigging. The teams also participate in joint exercises with all the emergency services and MCA search & rescue helicopters. Some of the work can be very harrowing and team members may well need counselling, usually provided by the police services.
The DRS is not itself a team anymore, but a group name for the four Dartmoor rescue teams. Each team is responsible for its own fundraising and each team member is expected to pay for their own equipment, which can cost around £500. Ashburton has many excellent corporate sponsors, who help members with this massive financial outlay. Recently the team needed a new technical vehicle and was able to raise this from some very kind and generous donors, who responded to a press release.
One of the Ashburton’s main fundraising events is the Templar Way walk, a sponsored event from Haytor to Shaldon. They also assist with the Ten Tors, which the Army organizes. DRS recently set up Dart2Zero which allows volunteers to help out, without having to be a full time member. The volunteers often help with the fundraising. The Ashburton Mountain Rescue group is sometimes open on Saturday mornings so that the public can see the equipment and how it works.
Some of the technical equipment that the teams use can cost £15-20K. SARMAN & SARCALL technology helps with the management and location of casualties and some technology can try to contact the casualty and if they have a smart phone, all the casualty has to do is reply, which sends the team their location. The team leader uses a program to help co-ordinate the search and record what has been covered already. This also uses historical data to help give the team information about previous similar cases.
The stretchers that the teams use have big wheels but these are basically to take the weight of the casualty. The skill is in keeping the stretcher level and getting it back to the rendezvous point.
DRS only accepts call-outs from the police, so if you need MR, ring 999 or 112 and ask for the Police to call the MR. They will also organise any ambulances as required.
Where is the equipment? The Ashburton branch use a barn, kindly built and donated by Buckfastleigh Abbey.
How do you liaise with employers of team members? It can vary enormously, as some people are self-employed, but most employers are flexible.
What changes have been made to the Ten Tors of the years? In the 1980s it was quite rudimentary. The organisers have had to re-think many things over the years, as it was originally across open moor. The routes have now changed and all the teams who participate have trackers, which the Army watch over.
Would more search dogs be more efficient? Not always – they can be limited if there has been a disruption of the scent, especially over a longer period of time.
Do you use thermal imaging? Sometimes, the police or Army help with this, but it’s less effective in the summer and also in forests.
Will Airband help?
Not necessarily as we use mostly radio and radio mast repeaters to stay in contact with each other and most of our equipment doesn’t need the internet.
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