New high-tech GPS kit helping mountain rescue team deal with record number of call outs
A mountain rescue team has said that they are dealing with a record number of call-outs because of increased visitor numbers and extreme weather caused by climate change.
In a year when rocketing visitor numbers to Snowdonia have made the national headlines, the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation has responded to 110 call-outs to date and expects many more this winter.
According to Tim Bird MBE, the team leader of the Ogwen Valley Mountain Rescue Organisation, they are being helped to rise to the challenge thanks to some ground-breaking technology donated by the North Wales Police and Community Trust.
The new hi-spec laptop and GPS devices, provided by the PACT charity are now linked up to the rescue team’s bespoke search and rescue call-out (SARCALL) web system, which enables the volunteers to respond promptly from home, work or from its base.
Tim Bird said: “It’s estimated around four million people visit Snowdonia National Park each year with many people enjoying days out in the mountains.
“The mountains don’t change, but what has changed is the number and scope of the rescues we undertake. This new kit means we can respond more quickly and efficiently to that demand.”
‘Local kids would answer’
From the OVMRO base at the foot of Tryfan, one of Snowdonia’s most demanding walks, Tim explained how calls could be handled using the new kit.
“We are all volunteers here, but we run a professional operation,” he said.
“When we get a call from someone in difficulty, we can use this new technology to tap into their mobile phone signal. We send them a message, asking them to just click a link and once they have done that, we have their location.
“If I’m at home, I can take the laptop and link-up with our SARCALL system. Any team deployment can be quickly managed and updated online.”
The multi-agency SARCALL system was developed by former Ogwen Valley team leader and telecommunications engineer John Hulse MBE, and is now used by emergency and rescue services across the UK
It’s a far cry from the early days of the organisation, which began in 1965, as long-serving volunteer Chris Lloyd recalls.
“I became a volunteer in 1975 and in those days, we would handle around 30 rescues a year. Most of us were keen amateur mountaineers, some from outside North Wales, who would come over and camp here at Ogwen at weekends. That was when people tended to go climbing then,” he said.
“Mobile technology didn’t exist. If we needed the help of volunteers based in Bethesda, down the road, we would call the public telephone kiosk, some local kids would answer and they would take the message to volunteers to get up here.”
Enjoying a tour of the OMVRO base and its considerably more hi-tech facilities today, PACT chair Ashley Rogers paid tribute to the professionalism of the rescuers.
“For a voluntary group, operating in difficult circumstances and providing assistance in the community for over 50 years, they are exceptional. They run a world-class operation,” he said.
“We’re so pleased that PACT can support their invaluable work at a time of increased demand for it.”
It’s estimated to cost around £130,000 a year to keep OVMRO running efficiently, and 98 per cent of that is funded by charity donations.
Tim Bird said that a combination of more people enjoying the mountains and extreme weather conditions linked to climate change had increased the organisation’s workload in recent years.
“Our volunteers are trained in rope, swift water and flood rescue techniques. We’re called out during flooding incidents across North Wales and further afield,” he said.
“A team with these specialist skills from OVMRO were sent to Carlisle during the terrible flooding there in 2005. And we were called out to assist when St Asaph was flooded too.”
But search and rescue operations on the mountains are what keep the teams busy throughout the year. Recent operations include recovering a vulnerable young adult from the hills above Bethesda, in freezing rain in the early hours. Teams are regularly deployed for poorly equipped visitors looking for adventure but finding themselves in danger.
“We are not here to criticise, but we do have a quiet word with them if they are not kitted out properly,” said Tim.
The organisation has previously won PACT funding for running a mountain safety project for members of the public.
The recent PACT grant of £1,794 paid for a hi-spec laptop and GPS mapping system.
“We’ve been so impressed by this operation,” said PACT chair Ashley Rogers. “The rescue volunteers are exceptional people who work hard to keep our communities safe and it’s superb to see this new kit supporting their valuable work.”
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