Rescue missions face delays

PUBLISHED: 18:01 21 January 2010 | UPDATED: 11:36 25 May 2010

NIGHT-TIME helicopter search and rescue missions in Weston could be delayed by up to 30 minutes under cost-cutting proposals by the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

NIGHT-TIME helicopter search and rescue missions in Weston could be delayed by up to 30 minutes under cost-cutting proposals by the Ministry of Defence (MOD).

The Government department is set to cut its 24-hour flying rescue operation from RMB Chivenor in North Devon to a 12-hour service when it is privatised in 2012.

Instead, night-time cover will be provided from bases at Culdrose in Cornwall and Anglesey in North Wales, where the MOD claims faster helicopters will be situated.

But former RNLI lifeboat volunteer and deputy mayor of Ilfracombe Town Council, Bob Thompson, says the Government should retain the all-day round service, which was called out on 322 occasions between January and November last year.

He said: "This means each night-time call-out to Weston could be delayed by at least 30 minutes, and that's if a helicopter is not already tied up in another operation.

"Given that approximately one-third of calls are at night, Culdrose and Anglesey will not be able to deal with the more than 100 night emergencies currently covered by Chivenor."

Weston RNLI station manager Pete Holder said the Coastguard Agency in Swansea often call on Chivenor to assist rescue efforts on land and at sea.

He said: "It is another sword in the search and rescue armoury in this region.

"It would be sad to see it either cut or withdrawn.

"Over the years we have worked closely with the service in action and training."

The rescue helicopter teams were called out to assist six operations in the Weston area from January to November 2009.

These included the attempt to find two men who were swept away from Birnbeck Pier after jumping in the sea for a swim.

The bodies of Lee Tompkins and Dave Ellams were found a week later on June 30.

A joint statement by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and MOD defended the privatisation plan, saying it would not make a difference to the service's coverage.

It said: "The MOD and Maritime and Coastguard Agency together provide a 24-hour military and civil helicopter service for the UK from 12 bases.

"It is planned to replace this capability with a single contract that will still, however retain a proportion of military aircrew alongside civilian aircrew trained to the same high standards.

"Because of the capability of the new helicopters proposed by both bidders we have been able to conclude that we can continue to provide effective and responsive coverage for all night-time incidents at Chivenor using covering from neighbouring bases.

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