BBC Spotlight Looks at How Technology is Assisting Search and Rescue
Dartmoor Rescue Group
“Never before have I been gifted with such an abundance of natural beauty as I experienced on Dartmoor”; the words of Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg after spending a fortnight on the moor filming his 2011 blockbuster War Horse.
But the beauty of the rocky moorland, with its towering Tors, twisted trees and foaming streams, masks a landscape that can be perilous for even the most experienced walkers, climbers and canoeist that flock to the national park every year.
For the past 45 years, the Dartmoor Rescue Group has played a key role in helping those who get into difficulty on the moor. Started in 1968 in Tavistock to assist a growing number of lost walkers and Military Cadets, it now comprises four separate search and rescue teams based in Tavistock, Okehampton, Plymouth and Ashburton.
Alec Collyer – a BBC cameraman and video journalist - has dedicated 37 years of his life to Dartmoor’s search and rescue (SAR) effort. He is the chairman (and a founding member) of the Ashburton team and also films with the Navy's Sea King helicopters on search and rescue missions from RNAS Culdrose.
“I joined the Dartmoor Rescue Group when I was 18. I’d already been introduced to the moor through school trips and the Ten Tors Challenge. I went along to a training session and just fell in with the team, and the rest is history.”
Each year the Ashburton group takes on a limited number of new members. Many are experienced walkers or ex-military personnel with good navigational skills and local knowledge. Each new member receives a training log book which takes about a year to complete and new recruits have to be fully fledged members before they are called out to a real incident.
“It was a long learning curve and I’m still learning now”, Alec recalls. “Technology such as Gortex fabric, LED lighting and GPS navigation aids simply weren't available when I started.”
Alec and the majority of his 60-strong team now have smartphones instead of pagers for responding to emergency call-outs. To assist them, most have installed ViewRanger, a navigation and location tracking app that allows them to download detailed Ordnance Survey maps to their phone and see their position via GPS.
Alec explains: “When we receive an emergency call-out, we are alerted by text via a system called SARCALLand given a meeting point at which to assemble. You can reply to that so the search manager knows how many people to expect and when they are arriving. They can call the other Dartmoor teams if they need back-up help.
“The search manager works with the police to co-ordinate the search and manages the rescue. We’re split into hill teams of about six people, who are led out onto the moor by a team leader. They communicate largely by radio as it’s the most reliable way of keeping track of each other.
“We always use map and compass for navigation, but having ViewRanger in your pocket is reassuring. You can check you’re on the right track and keep tabs on your route. It’s a useful tool to have on a call out.”
The Ashburton group deals with around 30 call-outs a year. Increasingly their work is taking place in urban areas rather than the wilds of the moorland, as it involves older people with dementia or those who wander away from their nursing home. They also provide the rescue cover for the Ten Tors expedition on the moors in May.
That said, Alec has been involved in countless, dangerous rescues on Dartmoor over the years, some of which had both successful and tragic outcomes.
“I shall never forget what happened in November 2009 when a group of canoeists got into trouble on the River Dart. When the river is in spate, the white-water attracts canoeists from all over the country, but conditions can be treacherous.
“One of the men became caught under a tree and sadly drowned. Two of his mates pulled him out, but they were trapped for about five hours at the bottom of the gorge. Gale force winds and driving rain meant the rescue helicopter couldn’t even get near them to winch them out.
“We walked five miles along old sheep tracks to reach them. We pulled the two guys out and recovered the body. The dead man was an experienced canoeist and wrote for a canoeing magazine. It just goes to show even the most competent of people can have accidents..
Alec says being part of a SAR team is a big undertaking both emotionally and financially. Team members have to buy most of their own equipment and it takes about £15,000 a year to keep the Ashburton group running, so everyone gets involved in fundraising. However, Alec insists that returning a missing person to a worried loved one makes it all worthwhile.
ViewRanger supports rescue teams worldwide through its VSAR (Voluntary Search and Rescue) programme. The company donates the app plus detailed topographical mapping to members of accredited mountain rescue and lowland SAR teams. More than 80% of UK teams benefit from VSAR participation.
“Many of our members also use ViewRanger when out walking or cycling for pleasure,” Alec explains. “Many have also downloaded the new overseas mapping which is really useful if you get disorientated abroad.
“Everyone who’s got ViewRanger, loves it. It’s a navigation app you can use at any time of the day or night that provides reassurance that you’re going the right way.
“Being part of a SAR becomes a way of life. You don’t have to give it all your spare time and enthusiasm however the more you put in, the more you get out. You’re part of a team that can mean life or death to someone out there.”