Search & Rescue

We conclude our series on the Emergency Services by looking at opportunities for paid and voluntary work within the UK’s search and rescue operations.

It’s seldom mentioned nowadays but at the start of the Second World War the number of aircrew killed during operations was almost equalled by those lost during training. In particular many young airmen died because they were involved in crashes that took place in remote areas of the UK, and there was no properly trained or equipped response. As a result the RAF established its own search and rescue operation in 1941.

To this day RAF crews continue to fly in search and rescue operations in and around the UK. But nowadays, while their primary role remains the recovery of RAF and other military personnel, most of the 1,000+ call-outs they answer every year are civilian incidents. These can range from rescuing walkers who have become lost in the hills to large-scale operations such as the 2004 flood relief for Boscastle in Cornwall. And while search and rescue within the UK is organised and provided through an amalgam of government departments, agencies and a range of voluntary and charitable organisations, it remains the emergency service most closely linked with the Armed Forces. Partly for historic reasons, it is also the service that is most reliant on the efforts of volunteers.

Responsibility for civilian search and rescue in the UK is ultimately held by the Department for Transport, but in practice such responsibilities are delegated; coastal and sea-based search and rescue is delegated to the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) and in turn is undertaken by HM Coastguard, which has the authority “to initiate and coordinate search and rescue operations.” This includes mobilising, organising and implementing adequate resources to aid anyone at risk of death or injury either at sea or along the UK’s shoreline. Inland search and rescue is delegated to teams operated by the police, RAF or civilian volunteers.

HM Coastguard has 19 Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres located around the UK Coast, forming a command and control network which can respond to reports of maritime and coastal distress – through either the 999 emergency system or on recognised distress radio frequencies. Although it does employ full-time staff, HM Coastguard also relies on the support of some 3,000 volunteers around the UK. Another important association which provides valuable search and rescue services is the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), a voluntary organisation incorporated by Royal Charter for the purpose of saving lives and promoting safety at sea. The RNLI’s core role is the provision, maintenance and crewing of a fleet of lifeboats located at strategic points around the British Isles which, again, are operated by volunteers.

More than 60 land-based search and rescue teams operate across the UK, helping save lives in the country’s most wild and remote places – including mountains, caves and lowland areas. Operationally, such teams are responsible to – and work under the authority of – their local police services, and usually consist of between 30 and 40 volunteers. Common interests are represented by regional groupings and national bodies including the Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales, the Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland, the British Cave Rescue Council and the Association of Lowland Search and Rescue.

Recruitment for search and rescue operations is invariably done at a local level; most people working in salaried roles for HM Coastguard start as coastguard watch assistants and carry out both administrative and operational work – such as handling 999 calls, monitoring equipment, updating logs and providing information to the public. Coastguard watch assistants do not need any formal qualifications or previous experience; recruitment is through the 19 Maritime Rescue Co-ordination Centres around the British coastline, although some initial training will be completed at the Maritime and Coastguard Agency Centre at Highcliffe in Dorset.

Having started as a coastguard watch assistant, it is possible to be promoted to coastguard watch officer and sector manager, with further training supporting progression into higher management. Watch officers will be expected to have extensive maritime experience, although additional training is provided. Academic qualifications and physical fitness are important, as is a valid UK driving licence for Group A–E vehicles. In most cases, coastguard vacancies will be advertised in the local press.

If such full-time vacancies are not available, you may be interested in becoming a rescue officer volunteer. The MCA’s headquarters in Southampton also employ a wide range of people skilled in IT, human resources, telecommunications and administration.

RNLI boat crews must be medically fit (with excellent eyesight), live and work within four minutes of the nearest lifeboat station and be prepared to respond to a call-out at any time of the day or night. “The vast majority of our crews don’t now have a maritime background before they join us,” says RNLI divisional inspector Andy Clift. “The more important thing that the stations look for is the commitment from the person and whether they will fit in with the crew. We require certain qualifications for the mechanics and the coxswains but, apart from that, we provide all the training that is necessary; in theory we can take someone all the way through to mechanic or coxswain.”

Members of mountain, cave and lowland search and rescue teams tend to be aged between 30 and 50. “Usually teams look for experienced all-weather mountaineers to start with,” says Andy Simpson of the Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales. “The criteria does vary from team to team because the terrain they work in varies, but what you don’t want is a situation where you’ve got team-members on the hill who become a liability because of their own inexperience. They’ve got to be able to at least look after themselves.
“Training is usually within the teams; sometimes teams will get together regionally to run courses; there are certain national standards, particularly where medical skills are concerned. There is a national standard set by the Council that you have to reach before you’re able to do anything more than basic first aid and CPR. Courses are organised by the Council, but are delivered by the teams or the regions.”

Paid opportunities within search and rescue are farely rare, and few people wake up wanting to volunteer in search and rescue; most mountain teams are made up of mountaineers who want to give something back to their peers. But there can be great rewards to volunteering in this sector and it is highly likely that you will be able to bring valuable experience from your time in the military. “You’re used to working with people, and you have the kind of nature that gets on with the job,” says RAF Warrant Officer David Whalley, Assistant Controller at the Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) at RAF Kinloss and a man with more than 30 years’ experience in search and rescue. “You’ve got a lot of key skills that you don’t realise are there until you actually leave the Services.”

“There’s a bit of self-discipline and motivation needed as well,” adds Andy Clift, “because – as a volunteer – there’s nobody standing over your shoulder saying you’ve got to do this, you’ve got to do that. I would say Service leavers usually have quite a few of the qualities that stations look for; a lot of people will be used to talking on the radio, and may have done some sort of first aid training.”

And Services personnel are also good at taking orders. “You do need to be able to rely on people doing exactly what they’re asked to do,” adds the Mountain Rescue Council’s Andy Simpson, “whether they’re happy about it or not. I suppose the difference between us and the Armed Forces is that you get the chance to complain afterwards if you’re not happy about something. Some people from the Armed Forces have a little difficulty getting their heads round that.”

The similarities between military service and civilian search and rescue can make volunteering in this sector an appealing pursuit, particularly when it comes to the camaraderie that exists between team members. “You’re in a family when you’re in the military,” says David Whalley “and when you go out, search and rescue is another big family, which is quite unique.”

Also, search and rescue teams are being called upon for an increasing range of missions – with mountain teams, for example, increasingly called out to help with missing person searches in lowland areas. As a result, they are viewed as a real asset to their communities. “It’s a phenomenal way to get into your local community; search and rescue teams are very well respected,” David adds.

But not all search and rescue positions are unpaid. Coastguard watch assistants can earn between £12k and £15k, while watch officers can earn around £20k, with additional rank being awarded along standard civil service bands. Although coastguard volunteers are not on a salary, they do receive an hourly payment for any official duties they carry out. All coastguards in the UK work for HM Coastguard.

Salaried positions elsewhere in the search and rescue sector are far more limited; nevertheless, the RNLI does employ skilled engineers, technicians and the inspectors who train the crews. However, all civilian mountain search and rescue is undertaken by volunteers, with team running costs usually covered by public donations. “Mountain rescue started off originally, 75 years ago, with climbers rescuing other climbers; that ethos is still present today,” says Andy Clift. “You do have to be very committed to it, because it impinges heavily on your spare time and your private life. Your family have got to be very supportive as well.”

Search and rescue demands both teamwork and the ability to make important decisions quickly. In that respect at least, it can offer an environment familiar to those in the Services. Although paid career options are limited, if you’re looking for a challenging voluntary activity, search and rescue could provide rewarding opportunities.


Association of Lowland Search and Rescue

British Cave Rescue Council

Maritime and Coastguard Agency
0870 600 6505

Mountain Rescue Council of England and Wales

Mountain Rescue Committee of Scotland

Northern Ireland Mountain, Cave and Cliff Rescue Co-ordinating Committee

Royal National Lifeboat Institution
0845 122 6999

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