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From Oceans to Mountaintops: how the Emergency Services reached the extremes!

There are some places around the British Isles that no ambulance- no matter how determined its driver- can ever reach, and where even the most well-equipped fire and rescue team would struggle to make it. When emergencies happen out at sea, or in the harsh terrain of mountains and moors, it calls for specialist teams to spring into action.

While they may not have as high a profile as the police, fire, and ambulance services, our lifeboat and mountain rescue teams are every bit as vital a cog in the emergency services machine. At NESM we have a huge array of ocean rescue equipment (an RNLI Lifeboat is one of our most popular, and largest, exhibits) and a climbing wall for those interested in testing their mountain rescue skills. Even so, the stories of these services are often overshadowed in the wider 999 world. Those stories are, however, just as worthy of telling…

Saving lives at sea:

Today, saving lives at sea and around the dangerous shoreline, is the responsibility of HM Coastguard, a government agency with its own highly trained rescue teams. The Coastguard is supported in its mission, however, by a multitude of volunteer lifeboat crews, and by one major charity in particular: the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution). Mayday or 999 calls are directed first to the Coastguard, who organise all rescue operations. For shoreline emergencies- in places like cliffs, mud, or shallow water- the Coastguard can call upon its own Coastguard Rescue Teams. But for incidents further out at sea, they usually summon an RNLI, or independent volunteer lifeboat crew.

This system has grown up over the last 250 years or so, ever since saving lives at sea became a national concern in the late 1700s. At that time there were more ships than ever sailing the high seas (thanks to an increase in trade brought about by the Industrial Revolution) and, inevitably, an increasing number of shipwrecks. Lighthouses quickly sprung up along the coast, but as wrecks continued to occur, it became clear some sort of rescue service was required.

First to emerge were local volunteer teams, the earliest at Formby in 1776, founded by mariner William Hutchinson (a very curious character; a former privateer and inventor who’d engineered technology for lighthouses, and worked on breathing apparatus to help save those drowning). Credit for the invention of the first proper lifeboat, however, usually goes to Lionel Lukin, a coach builder who patented his design for an “unsinkable boat” in 1785.

A few decades passed before the first national organisation for lifesaving at sea- the Coastguard- was founded in 1822. Today it is responsible for overseeing all rescue operations along coasts and beaches. Yet it came into being mainly to fight smuggling, which experienced a “golden age” along Britain’s coast in the Georgian era. The remit to assist shipwrecks was secondary. Perhaps that was why the RNLI was founded two years later in 1824. Originally named the National Institution for the Preservation of Life from Shipwreck, it is now the largest charity providing lifesaving services at sea, with most of its lifeboats staffed by unpaid volunteers.

The skill and bravery of lifeboat operators was exemplified very early on, not by an RNLI team, but by a lone lighthouse keeper’s daughter. In 1838 Grace Darling risked her life to save nine people from the wrecked ship Forfarshire. The 22-year-old found national fame and her tale still inspires lifeboat operators today.

Mountain Rescue: scaling the heights:

Search and rescue operations in-land are the responsibility of the police. But in practice, it’s our Mountain Rescue teams that do most of the actual “rescuing” in Britain’s rugged peaks. There may not be any direct 999 contact to Mountain Rescue as there is with the Coastguard (the police call teams out when necessary) but they are just as critical when it comes to saving lives.

As with the Coastguard, Mountain Rescue’s origins lie back in the smoke of the Industrial Revolution, which not only put more ships out at sea, but also led to more people visiting the countryside to escape the smog-filled cities. In the 20th century, walking and climbing for fun really took off, with hiking and mountaineering clubs being formed.

Soon the number of injuries in hard-to-reach locations led these clubs to organise the first mountain rescue teams. In 1936 they formed a first aid committee, a body now known as Mountain Rescue England and Wales. Today there are 48 teams under this umbrella group (with a further 27 under Scottish Mountain Rescue), each made up of civilian volunteers with extensive training.

Below the earth, and high above:

Reaching casualties in the depths of Britain’s caves must be one of the most challenging and dangerous undertakings any emergency crew can face. Dark, twisting tunnels, subterranean water, and deep vertical shafts, are just some of the obstacles rescuers meet when delving underground in search of lost or injured cavers. For these situations police can call on specialist Cave Rescue Teams which have operated under the British Cave Rescue Committee since 1967. Each volunteer is trained in the use of specialist equipment like “confined space stretchers” and hauling systems.

At the other extreme, it’s often necessary for Mountain Rescue or the Coastguard to summon help from high above! Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopters can be used for both land-based emergencies- finding casualties high in the mountains- and those at sea, winching people from stricken ships. They are provided by the UK SAR Helicopter Service which now operates all the UK’s SAR helicopters. The vehicles bare the “Coastguard” brand and are based at stations dotted around the coast, though they in fact cover the entire UK (the Peak District near Sheffield, for example, is covered by the Humberside base near the Lincolnshire coast). The old system, which had featured a mix of Coastguard and Armed Forces helicopters, was phased out in 2015; Prince William had served as a pilot for the RAF SAR Service before its disbandment.

SAR helicopters can be summoned either by the Coastguard or by the police for in-land emergencies. They are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, just like all the emergency services we rely on for help, whether in our own homes, or out in the extremes!

The UK SAR Helicopter Service is now run by a private firm (Bristow)

but operates under the Coastguard “brand”

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