After decades saving lives, volunteer mountain rescue teams are fighting for survival. Will the Government throw them a funding lifeline, asks Maria Clegg.
Prince William has announced his intention to volunteer with a mountain rescue team, but it's unlikely he'll spend much time in a supermarket car park with a collecting tin.
For mountain rescue teams (MRTs), fundraising is a necessary slog - off-road vehicles, medical equipment, emergency training and specialist rescue equipment don't come cheap, and the teams rely on collections, bequests and fundraising events. The Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales, the national charity representing MRTs, the British Cave Rescue Council and the Search and Rescue Dog Association believe the time has come for the Government to dig deep for this service.
There are 53 MRTs in England and Wales, with a further 23 civilian teams in Scotland, each with running costs of £20,000-£80,000. MRTs in England and Wales receive no structured public funding, and each one is a charity.
Many MRTs were set up in on the voluntary principle of mountaineers rescuing fellow mountaineers, but their role has changed beyond recognition - teams don't only rescue people from mountains, they use mountaineering skills to assist emergency services in wild or inaccessible places.
"We come across this misconception that we're just rescuing idiots from cliffs," says Andy Simpson, committee member of Mountain Rescue England and Wales and a deputy team leader with 12 years' experience in mountain rescue. With 2,500 team members in England and Wales, and 1,000 more in Scotland, the volunteers are an experienced, committed auxiliary emergency service, on call to assist police, ambulance crews and military helicopter crews seven days a week, 24 hours a day.
"Let's say there's a road accident and someone is thrown 50 feet down some banking," says Simpson. "You can't expect the ambulance crew to abseil in after them." But someone has to do it and, says Simpson, the Government should help pay for it.
Lobbying paid off
Until three years ago, Scotland's 23 civilian teams shared public funding of £60,000. Lobbying by the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland (MRCS) led to funding of £400,000 a year for three years. Last year, Scottish teams received an extra £400,000 to replace outdated radio equipment, and the executive now meets the service's annual first aid bill of £40,000. Amazingly, the money doesn't come with strings - there are no targets, only a list of items the money must be spent on, drawn up by the teams.
"As charities, we're used to accounting for every penny," explains Bob Sharp, vice-chair of the MRCS. "We may also be audited in the future, but there's a general recognition that we will spend it wisely." The MRCS is determined that every penny will be spent on mountain rescue, not red tape, and rather than employ a full-time administrator the MRCS asked for the money to be allocated regionally by the police.
Mountain Rescue in England and Wales does receive some statutory funding: £30,000 a year from the NHS to contribute to medical equipment and £18,000 from the Welsh Assembly for teams in Wales - about £900 a team. "That would buy half a stretcher, or three 500-foot ropes," says Simpson.
Members agree the service should remain free, and have one basic demand: that the burden of chasing fundraising be lightened. Most volunteers join in their 30s and 40s, when they are experienced and settled enough to be able to give something back, but there is a knock-on effect. One team member who asked to remain anonymous said: "We train once a week and most weekends. I have regional commitments too, and as a committed member you have to attend the fundraising events. Then there's the call-outs. It wears my wife's patience a little thin. As little as £5,000 would alleviate the pressure."
The Department of Transport Select Committee on Rescue Services, chaired by Gywneth Dunwoody, will present its findings later this year. A committee report published in April stated that "the UK's search and rescue effort relies heavily on volunteers and voluntary organisations. Unless further support is given to volunteering, we fear more employed staff will be required in the future, at greater cost to the taxpayer."
The MRC is hoping the Government will follow the Scottish Executive's example and provide funding without restricting the way teams operate. "These people are prepared to get out of bed at 3.00am and walk into a snowstorm to save a life," argues Simpson. "If you put bureaucracy in the way of people like that, they won't volunteer. We're happy to do what we do, but we don't really want to shake a bucket outside Asda on a Saturday."
CORNWALL RESCUE GROUP, UK'S NEWEST MRT
"When we launched the team in March 2003, the police told us to expect about 12 call-outs a year; in 2004, there were 40, and one was the Boscastle floods rescue operation. We raised £11,000 last year and started up with hand-outs from other MRT members: torches from Keswick, waterproof clothing from Bolton and an old Land Rover from Edale that we need to replace before it falls apart. We're hoping to raise £12,000 this year, but could use ten times that."
Jim Gallienne, team leader, Cornwall Rescue Group.