Search and rescue crews 'over-stretched'

OVER-stretched RAF search and rescue helicopter crews based in Suffolk have been unable to respond to some emergency calls because of a lack of manpower, it has emerged.

Anthony Bond

OVER-stretched RAF search and rescue helicopter crews based in Suffolk have been unable to respond to some emergency calls because of a lack of manpower, it has emerged.

Staff shortages within B Flight 22 Squadron at Wattisham Airfield, near Stowmarket, have arisen due to servicemen being posted overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan - causing difficulties in keeping a full crew on stand-by.

This means the two Sea King helicopters based at the Suffolk airfield are sometimes limited on which emergencies they can attend. At its worst they cannot go out and rescue people who are stuck on boats or trapped in water.


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Twice last week search and rescue cover for the area was maintained by a unit in East Yorkshire.

Flight Lieutenant Jean-Marc David, of B Flight 22 Squadron, told the EADT: “Crews are working very hard at the moment and doing more shifts than comfortable and sometimes we do not have enough full crew on stand-by so we are limited on what jobs we can do.

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“Obviously we have got a few detachments in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have got a lack of manpower.

“Nobody wants the standby to be affected and that is our job. We are there to rescue people and people are doing more shifts than they really should do. It is not ideal but everybody is working extremely hard to make sure that we can provide a service that the public expect of us.”

The two Sea King helicopters perform search and rescue operations covering a huge area from the south coast and Dover into London and out to the Wash mudflats.

They average more than 10 emergency call-outs a month which can include people being helped, rescued and transferred to hospital.

According to Ft Lt David, the staff shortages have been an issue which has been building up over the past couple of months with detachments in Afghanistan and Iraq increasing the strain.

He said there was “no change on the horizon” and the situation will be the same for the foreseeable future.

Bury St Edmunds MP David Ruffley, whose constituency covers Wattisham, said: “This is a stark reminder that our over-stretched brave servicemen and women are spending more time in the war zones in Afghanistan and something has got to give.

“I will be looking into this concern that there is less capability to do rescues in Suffolk.

“It is a reminder that the war in Afghanistan has knock-on effects for protecting Suffolk. It seems that there is not enough money to go around.”

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson said: “A current shortage of rear winch men at Wattisham was exacerbated by sickness last week and so for two short periods on October 22 and 24 B Flight 22 Squadron search and rescue were restricted to medical evacuation sorties only.

“During both these periods search and rescue cover for the area was maintained by adjacent search and rescue units at Leconfield as is standard practice when a unit is airborne on a rescue or temporarily unable to deploy.

“We are working hard to ensure that there are sufficiently trained search and rescue aircrew coming through the Sea King operational conversion unit to ensure that this temporary rear crew shortage can be alleviated as soon as possible.”

The search and rescue squadrons provide 24-hour cover. They maintain a 15-minute readiness state during daylight hours and a 45-minutes readiness state during the hours of darkness.

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