All change for search and rescue in a year

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With less than a year to go until the UK’s search and rescue service is officially handed over to a private firm, north Northumberland residents continue to express concerns about the changes.

As reported in the Gazette last April, US-owned firm Bristow is to take on the country’s Search and Rescue (SAR) helicopter service, which is currently carried out by bases such as RAF Boulmer.

Search and Rescue Sea King helicopters based at RAF Boulmer.

Search and Rescue Sea King helicopters based at RAF Boulmer.

It came as the Department for Transport signed a £1.6billion contract with Bristow Helicopters Ltd, which will come into effect in April 2015 and run until 2026.

Under the new contract, 22 helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK, but the nearest to north Northumberland will be Humberside or Glasgow (Prestwick), with coverage also provided from Caernarfon in north Wales.

A map similar to the one above was shared on Facebook, leading to fears being voiced again by Northumberland residents.

However, assurances have been made about the quality of the service which will be provided. In a joint statement, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) and Bristow Helicopters, said: “Under the new contract, the North East of England will be covered primarily by bases at Prestwick, Humberside and Caernarfon.

“State-of-the-art Sikorsky S-92 and AgustaWestland AW189 SAR helicopters will be able to fly faster and further.

“Overall, our strategic choice of base locations, new aircraft and hi-tech equipment will provide unprecedented levels of overlapping SAR helicopter coverage for the whole of the UK.

“We are also working closely with local partner organisations in the North East and right across the UK such as Coastguard Rescue Teams, RNLI, Police and Mountain Rescue to ensure that all receive adequate training time with our crews and helicopters.”

Ten Sikorsky S92s will be based, two per site, at Stornoway and Sumburgh, and at new bases at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports.

Construction of the new base at the latter began at the beginning of March and is due to open in April next year.

Ten AgustaWestland AW189s will operate, two per site, from Lee on Solent and a new hangar at Prestwick airport, and new bases which will be established at St Athan, Inverness and Manston airports. And despite fears, it has been claimed that the loss of the SAR service will not affect the viability of RAF Boulmer.

A spokeswoman told the Gazette last year: “Whatever the future for Search and Rescue helicopters, there are no plans for RAF Boulmer to close. RAF Boulmer is the hub of the RAF Air Surveillance and Control System (ASACS) Force, which plays a vital role in homeland defence and is manned 24/7 in support of national Quick Reaction Alert procedures.

“Also situated at RAF Boulmer is the RAF School of Aerospace Battle Management.

The School is recognised worldwide as a centre of excellence for providing tactical airspace battle management training for British Armed Forces, NATO and other foreign national military personnel.”

Questions have also been raised about the provision of fire and rescue cover on Holy Island during the periods when it is cut off by the tide, although there is a Coastguard team based on the island, which also falls under the remit of Seahouses RNLI.

A county council spokeswoman said: “We will put in place arrangements with the new provider in due course. We do already have alternative arrangements with other providers, such as the RNLI.”

l Next week, a north Northumberland man who says he wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the RAF Boulmer helicopter shares his story.

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