Helicopter campaign to stop Chivenor cuts

THE people of North Devon are being urged to take to the campaign trail once again in a bid to stop the Government makings cuts to the life-saving search and rescue service provided by the helicopters of Chivenor. Ilfracombe Town Council and North Devon M

THE people of North Devon are being urged to take to the campaign trail once again in a bid to stop the Government makings cuts to the life-saving search and rescue service provided by the helicopters of Chivenor.

Ilfracombe Town Council and North Devon MP Nick Harvey have called on the whole region to support them and prevent plans to reduce Chivenor rescue missions from 24 to 12 hours in 2012, as revealed by the Gazette in August.

They were joined at a press conference on Monday by Ray Wooff, a familiar figure in Ilfracombe who is now embarking on a third campaign to stave off Chivenor cuts.

It would effectively mean night-time search and rescue cover from Southern Ireland to the Solent would come from Culdrose in Cornwall, which they say would threaten lives not only in North Devon, but throughout the West Country, South Wales and Ireland.

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The campaigners are calling on everyone in these areas - fellow councils, MPs, local organisations, residents and anyone with an interest in seeing the service maintained to contact them and lodge their support before it is lost for ever.

The Government has announced that Chivenor, home of RAF 22 Squadron, is one of three bases which will only carry out rescue missions during daylight hours when the service is effectively privatised by being handed over to commercial contractors in 2012.

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The aim of the new SAR-H programme is to replace the nationwide network of search and rescue bases run by military and coastguard personnel, with a single operator and a new, faster fleet of helicopters which the Ministry of Defence says would be able to supply efficient cover even with the cutbacks.

At Monday's campaign launch, Ilfracombe councillors and Mr Harvey said such a move could cost lives and people could end up dying before rescuers reached them.

"We are concerned by the implications for the whole of the region, southern Wales and Ireland," said Councillor Bob Thompson.

"Chivenor has one of the biggest operational areas and is also the second busiest in the country. Approximately a third of its operations are carried out at night. We don't think Culdrose will be able to adequately cover the work they do.

"Three Chivenor rescues in the last month saw a girl medi-vacced from Bude to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol, a man cut off by the tide on rocks at Portishead and - after refuelling at Cork - assistance to a vessel out in the Atlantic.

"Flying time from Culdrose to Chivenor is around half an hour - for the man at Portishead that would have meant an extra metre-and-a-half of tide coming in."

He added that Air Ambulances did not fly at night, nor were they capable of medi-vac work because they did not have the space to house the necessary equipment.

In a letter to MPs in August, Quentin Davies MP, Minister for Defence Equipment and Support claimed the new faster helicopters would "enable faster transit times to incidents enabling valuable reductions in response times around the UK.

"Historical data shows the level of incidents falls markedly from daytime peaks. This will enable us to meet and indeed exceed previous incident levels at night time across the UK, when we transition to the new service from 2012."

But Mr Harvey added: "We accept a new generation of helicopters will have enhanced capabilities but one they will not possess is the ability to be in two places at once.

"The response time for call outs in our part of the world will be slow, but if the helicopters are all up here it's just as much a problem for someone close to Culdrose."

The shortlist for who wins the search and rescue contract is down to two consortia: AirKnight - consisting of Lockheed Martin, the VT Group and British International Helicopters - and Soteria, formed by CHC Helicopters, Thales UK and the Royal Bank of Scotland.

"Before they have even awarded the contract the government is reducing the requirement to 12 hour cover," continued Mr Harvey.

"I think this is the thin end of the wedge. There's a risk in my view that the commercial; sector will say that if the Government think they can do without night cover at those stations, they can do without them during the day as well.

"But it's important to stress we're not campaigning against contracting the service, the point of this is to force them to reverse the 24 hour decision."

Councillor Geoff Fowler said the council was going to act as a "sounding board" for anyone who wished to add their support to the campaign, either through letters or by email. To add your comments and support to the "Save Chivenor" campaign, email itc@northdevon.gov.uk or write c/o Pauline Williams, The Ilfracombe Centre, 44 High Street, Ilfracombe, EX34 8AL.

Nick Harvey is also running an online petition against the proposals at www.nickharveymp.com/petitions and a newly created Facebook page already has more than 250 in opposition to the Government scheme.

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