Suffolk: Concern raised over withdrawal of search and rescue services from Wattisham

The RAF Search and Rescue Sea King Helicopter of B Flight 22 Sqn from Wattisham Airfield

The RAF Search and Rescue Sea King Helicopter of B Flight 22 Sqn from Wattisham Airfield

SEA KING helicopters are to be pulled out of East Anglia after the Government announced the privatisation of search and rescue services.

The Department for Transport have signed a 10-year contract worth £1.6billion with the Bristow Group, signalling the end of 70 years of search and rescue (SAR) by the RAF and Royal Navy.

The move will result in the SAR base at RAF Wattisham being moved to Manston Airport in Kent, prompting concerns from doctors and rescue volunteers about longer response times to life and death situations.

Fears have also been raised that a commercial service will have a different ethos to the one provided by military crew.

Last night a spokesman for the RAF said no jobs would be lost in the changes, but that service personnel from Suffolk would be redeployed or allowed to apply for positions with Bristows as part of a ‘managed transition’.

The government has long argued that it needs to act because the much-loved Sea King helicopter fleet is approaching the end of its useful life.

The Department of Transport said that under the new contract, 22 helicopters will operate from 10 locations around the UK. Ten Sikorsky S92s will be based, two per site, at Stornoway and Sumburgh, and at new bases at Newquay, Caernarfon and Humberside airports.

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Ten AgustaWestland AW189s will operate, two per site, from Lee on Solent and a new hangar at Prestwick airport. In addition to the new base Manston, there will be new bases at St Athan and Inverness.

The department insisted the new service would be better than the current one.

It said: “There will be an overall improvement in flying times to incidents of around 20% (from 23 to 19 minutes). Presently, approximately 70% of high and very high-risk areas within the UK search and rescue region are reachable by helicopter within 30 minutes. Under the new contract, approximately 85% of the same area would be reached within this timeframe.”

Simon Jones, chief executive of Suffolk Local Medical Committee, which represents the county’s GPs, said he was yet to receive feedback from colleagues but said there was national concern at a move away from a trusted service.

He added: “Response times are clearly a concern, although the proposals appear to be introducing more modern equipment which should be able to get to people more quickly.”

Mr Jones said reaching people quickly meant a greater opportunity to deliver vital care. He added: “Speed will inevitably be a significant component, but there are other elements of reliability. Nationally it’s been said, ‘Would a privatised service offer the same level service that you currently enjoyed?’

John Prentice of Suffolk Lowland Search and Rescue said: “We very rarely get a chance to work with search and rescue guys but I imagine that any move away from Suffolk is going to increase the arrival time and the time available on site for helicopters.”

Bristow Helicopters is an Aberdeen-based company, although the corporate headquarters of the Bristow Group is in Texas.

The new service run by Bristow will be fully rolled out by summer 2017

Mike Imlach, Bristow Helicopters Ltd’s Managing Director, said existing SAR knowledge will not be lost and said new helicopters will “deliver unprecedented levels and quality of SAR coverage across the country.”