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Critics warn against Portland rescue helicopter being taken over by civilians

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: February 04, 2013

The Portland search and rescue helicopter

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More lives will be lost unless the Government halts plans to privatise the Portland search and rescue helicopter, a report has claimed.

Search-and-rescue professionals, doctors, mountain-rescue volunteers, workers in the maritime industry and people who have been saved fear a new civilian service will not be as effective as the RAF and Royal Navy pilots and crew.

Plans to cut two of the 12 search-and-rescue (SAR) bases dotted around Britain’s coastline will leave some areas exposed, it is claimed, and potentially parts of the South West coast as Portland in Dorset loses its helicopter cover in 2017.

Whoever takes over Britain’s SAR service will be expected to operate from ten locations, including North Devon and West Cornwall.

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The plan could result in rescue helicopters being moved from their current homes at RNAS Culdrose, near Helston, and RMB Chivenor, near Braunton – but they will have to remain in the area.

According to a report in The Guardian, critics say the new service will include fewer and, in some cases, smaller helicopters that operate over shorter ranges. There are fears that pilots could be barred by the new contractor from flying in harsh weather conditions, particularly in mountainous areas.

But the biggest unknown, the report says, is how effective civilian pilots will be in the rescue role, compared with their military counterparts who have been involved in SAR for 70 years.

Louise Ellman, chairman of the Commons transport select committee, said: “There is still concern about the possible risk to life by the change. I would like the process halted. I am disturbed there has been no proper consultation.”

The government will announce this spring which company or companies will be charged with providing helicopters and staff for ten years from 2016. It says the military’s ageing Sea King helicopters will retire in 2016. Ministers argue that faster, more efficient helicopters will provide an even better service and new civilian crews will be as effective as military personnel.

Bill Whitehouse, chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council, told the newspaper: “There’s concern whether the smaller aircraft will be able to do everything the Sea King can.

“Obviously there’s nervousness when you see change coming. We’re happy with what we’ve got.”

As reported previously in the Western Morning News, there are anxieties about the closure of Portland, which is currently run by civilians for the coastguard.

The Department for Transport believes the area can be covered from Lee-on-Solent in Hampshire, Chivenor and Culdrose.

But Richard Drax, Tory MP for South Dorset, has branded the removal of the Portland service a “sheer act of folly”.

The Guardian said he claimed sources within the current SAR service had predicted that up to eight more lives a year could be lost if the base were closed.

Mr Drax has said the changes are being rushed through without enough consultation because a previous plan to set up a new SAR service involving both civilians and the military collapsed in 2011. Tens of thousands of people have signed petitions calling for Portland to be saved.

A DfT spokesman said: “The future service will provide comprehensive search-and-rescue helicopter coverage for the UK. Utilising a fleet of modern, state-of-the-art helicopters, the service will operate from ten bases, and modelling shows that the speed of the new fleet will improve average flight times to incidents by approximately 20%.”

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