View from the frontline: up hill and down dale


Philip Mason talks to Swaledale Mountain Rescue volunteer Paul Denning about the use of communications technology by the organisation, and what happens during a typical shout.

Could you give an overview of the organisation and what it does?

Swaledale is one of several mountain rescue organisations operating across Yorkshire. We’re a volunteer charity working principally on behalf of the police and ambulance service, to support them in their statutory responsibilities in relation to missing people.

Our operational area covers something like 500 square miles, reaching from the northern end of the Yorkshire Dales up to the Cumbrian border. The other two-thirds of the Dales are covered by other mountain rescue teams.

What are the specific responsibilities you mentioned?

The police are responsible for searching for missing people on-shore, and I always say that they sub-contract to us. We go out and look for people, and once we’ve found the casualty, it then becomes a rescue situation.

Once we locate the person, we then recover them, either as a walking casualty or on a stretcher, bringing them back to receive medical attention. The intention from our point of view is always to hand them over to the ambulance service as soon as possible – it’s not our job to get them to hospital. 

Having said that, we’re also able to provide quite significant medical care ourselves, and even our most basic casualty carer is trained up to the equivalent of advanced Red Cross standard. We might be providing medical care to the casualty for a few hours, so it’s not just a matter of putting a plaster on them.

As well as mountains and high places, what other kinds of terrain do you have to deal with? What are the unique challenges of those?

The other main type of environment is caves, although caving incidents do tend to be quite rare for us. Swaledale Mountain Rescue deals with underground incidents about once every 10 years.

Yorkshire as a whole is one of the key caving areas of the United Kingdom, and as such we still train for those kinds of incidents and have a lot of equipment. If and when an incident does happen, they tend to be quite complex operations.

There are a lot of caves in Swaledale, as well as a significant amount of lead mines, which could be anything up to 300 years old. Many of them weren’t surveyed properly at the time, basically because people wanted to keep them a secret. They can be quite dangerous.

Moving onto the subject of comms, what equipment do you use, both onsite and for dispatch?

For dispatch, we use something called Sarcall, which is a web-based platform originally developed by mountain rescue teams in North Wales. We receive a text message from the system, with incident information inputted by either the police or the ambulance service. We then let them know we’re on the way, again using Sarcall.

A major part of the dispatch communication is obviously providing the victim’s location, but that’s not always completely accurate in terms of pinpointing exactly where they are. Thankfully, we also have the ability to send a text message to the victim’s phone, something which is again part of the Sarcall platform.

They click on a link and – as long as they have GPS and the internet on their phone – their location appears on our mapping system. That’s a great bit of technology, which we use now almost as a default. It’s called PhoneFinder.

Onsite, we use DMR Tier III as well as Airwave, which the police and ambulance services make available to us on a seven-day loan contract. Regarding the latter, we’ve got three vehicle sets, and something like eight handsets, which is enough for us to carry out operations.

We’ve got about 40 people on the full team call-out list, and we generally get about 20 to an incident. We might get 15 on occasion, but that’s really all you need to carry a stretcher 100 metres to the nearest vehicle.

Going back to a previous question, what communications technology do you use during a cave rescue?

One of our main forms of communication for underground incidents is something called Cave-Link, which is a text-messaging system developed in Austria. It’s a commercial, off-the-shelf product, enabling us to communicate without having to be directly above the location.

The downside of Cave-Link is that it’s text-based, so it’s quite slow, at least compared to voice. On the other hand, caves can be extremely noisy, echoey environments, so not having to speak can be a real benefit.

Are there any challenges when it comes to coverage, particularly regarding the above-ground terrain?

The main Swale valley is quite twisty, meaning that we need multiple repeaters to cover the area. We currently have six radio sites installed, whereas if it were a straight valley, you could just put one repeater at the end of it and the signal would propagate beautifully.

Because of the increased number of sites, Airwave coverage is generally very good. There’s a couple of spots with no signal, but we know exactly where they are. There’s a pass between Swaledale and Wensleydale, at the summit of which is a car park where Airwave doesn’t work for about 100 metres. Fortunately, the DMR signal is fine.

At the same time, there’s also barely any coverage when it comes to 4G. There’s a couple of masts in Swaledale, but it’s so limited you tend to lose coverage over a large part of the area. You can’t just ring somebody up.

You mentioned earlier that you use DMR Tier III alongside Airwave. How have you got that system set up?

DMR Tier III is over IP, and we’re lucky enough to be able to use the internet connections of several local businesses. Believe it or not, there’s only one cheese manufacturing business in Wensleydale – in a place called Hawes – and we have an antenna on their roof.

DMR Tier III is comparatively cheap compared to Airwave, but one of the major costs is the internet connection for each site, which is thankfully something we don’t have to think about. It’s not as robust as we’d like – obviously, we’d like our own connection – but we tolerate that for the lower running cost.

Does that lack of robustness ever affect operations?

Not really. Periodically, someone at one of the sites will unplug something by mistake, but the resilience that we lose is extremely modest. We obviously also have Airwave as a back-up.

We pay about £250 a year to rent the frequencies from Ofcom, plus one internet connection. For a system that covers a large swathe of the northeast of England, 500 quid a year is a pretty good deal.

Can you describe a typical day in the life of a member of the Swaledale Mountain Rescue team? What generally happens during a shout?

First of all, the incident would be reported by a member of the public through 999, either to police or ambulance. The incident information would then come through to everyone on the team via Sarcall.

It will be received by all of us, but with one person nominated as the team controller who will deal with it as a priority. We’ve all got real jobs, so people will be just going about their normal, daily lives when the message comes in.

A significant number of our call-outs come through the ambulance service, because they tend to revolve around medical issues. Someone will have broken a leg, become medically incapacitated, and so on.

They don’t think “We need to contact mountain rescue”, they think “I’ve broken my ankle”, so they contact the health services first.  

Along with the location information, we’ll also be informed which Airwave channels the emergency services are using, as well as the ISSI number of the crew or officers involved. Regarding comms between the team members themselves, we always try and use DMR as the main single voice channel, because we know that everyone’s got that.

In terms of performance, Airwave is superior to DMR Tier III, which you’d obviously expect. It sets up calls in a flash, where with the other system there’s a little bit of latency, probably due to it being IP-based. Airwave is a multi-million-pound system, to be fair.

What’s the protocol when you arrive on the scene?

The first team member on the scene will carry out advanced reconnaissance and confirm where the casualty is. We’re able to see their radio – which will have GPS – so we know as soon as someone has turned up.

The rest of the team then arrives, and the controller will decide what equipment needs to be sent up the hill and in what order. That information is passed to the person at the casualty site, so they know exactly what’s coming.

Equipment is carried to the site in the medically appropriate order, after which it’ll be the stretchers and ropes required for the evacuation. We then bring the casualty down, and hand them over to the emergency services, who will usually either be in an ambulance or a helicopter.

What’s been your most memorable rescue?

 I’ve been involved in a lot of call-outs at this point, so it’s difficult to pinpoint one. We did a search for a gentleman at the end of last year, who’d got lost wandering off from the highest pub in the UK, located in a place called Tan Hill. We’ve had incidents where people have got drunk and walked away from there at three o’clock in the morning, which can be challenging.

The pub is on the Pennine Way, at the confluence between North Yorkshire, County Durham and Cumbria. Depending on which way you turn, you could be in another mountain rescue area altogether.

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Media contact

Philip Mason
Managing Editor, Critical Communications Portfolio
Tel: +44 (0)20 3874 9216