Meet these Calder Valley mountain rescue volunteers helping to reach people in difficulty in remote places
Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team has faced a busy few months. Laura Reid speaks to volunteers about their work during lockdown and what it’s like to be part of the team.
From a woman being trampled by cows in Halifax to a man falling from a rope swing in Pudsey, it’s been a hectic few weeks of callouts for the Calder Valley Search and Rescue Team (CVSRT).
The hottest day of the year so far, on June 25, saw the team experience its busiest day outside of a major adverse weather or flooding incident since its founding in 1966.
The four callouts in 12 hours that day came less than two weeks after team leader Jonathan Cole highlighted the team’s “significant increase” in requests for support, claiming CVSRT had become one of the busiest mountain rescue teams in England and Wales.
Long-standing volunteer Rob Freeman says the lockdown and early advice to stay at home and exercise locally created “a specific set of circumstances that resulted in us and teams that share similar geography to us becoming relatively much busier”.
“Our geography means that we have residential areas with very easy access to some wonderful local places in the moors and the hills of the Calder Valley,” he says. “Certainly what we’ve seen is an increase in people who with absolutely the best intentions have unfortunately come to grief with accidents that in many cases have been relatively close to home...We’ve found ourselves as a result being busier than we normally would.”
As of June 12, the team had been called to assist with 45 incidents this year, a 40 per cent rise on the same period last year. Twenty six of those occurred in the time since lockdown began in March - and in the month that has followed since, there’s been nearly a dozen more.
Many, as is often the case with the team’s callouts, have been in relation to lower leg injuries, though there’s been an anaphylaxis incident, falls, medical scenarios including a cardiac arrest, and that rather nasty sounding cattle trample.
“It’s never nice to have call outs,” says 41-year-old volunteer Gareth Talbot, “but it’s good that we can be there to help when people need us. And the services we work with are great organisations.”
The team is made up of around 55 volunteers and, though it is based in the Calder Valley, its operational area covers much of the northern half of West Yorkshire, stretching north from the M62 to the edge of the Yorkshire Dales and from the Lancashire border in the West to the A1 in the East.
Its work is predominantly split between helping the ambulance service and the police. The former could involve helping to locate, treat or evacuate patients in remote and difficult to access locations such as moorland and valleys. The latter sees team members and search dogs help with locating missing people.
“The work with the police tends to really focus on vulnerable missing people,” says 39-year-old Rob, who has been with the team for 15 years. “They maybe people with medical conditions that make them vulnerable such as diabetes or dementia.
"Or for whatever reason, they may be suicidal, which puts them into a vulnerable category. We assist the police in trying to locate those people particularly if it’s believed they’re in a remote area like dense woodland, moorland or craggy areas.”
It can be a challenging job and one that requires plenty of training. The team takes on a cohort of trainees each January, with applicants required to have a basic level of experience traversing the hills. Those who are successful undergo a structured year-long training programme, starting to attend callouts after six months of preparation.
“[Your first callout] is similar to when you pass your driving test and you get out for the first time,” says Gareth, of Hebden Bridge, who started his training in January last year. “You know what you’re doing and you’ve got all the skills but there’s a big difference when you’ve got that added responsibility. Saying that, we are very structured and very looked after.”
Even for those fully operational, development is an ongoing process. The group meets every Tuesday for preparation and training activities, including a maintenance session to check kit and equipment.
Volunteers are also medically trained; all have a relevant first aid qualification, the vast majority have completed an advanced level casualty care programme and there are also a number of doctors and paramedics as part of the team.
“We train every week but that only goes so far in that every rescue is different,” Rob, who lives in Sowerby, reflects. “We find ourselves having to adapt. When you throw in the challenges of things like weather and nighttime operations, there can be some stressful situations that we have to manage.”
Not every callout has a positive outcome, regardless of the efforts from those involved. “Sadly we do come across people who have passed away, who are deceased, which brings its own challenges for the patient, the family and ourselves,” Rob explains. “The other challenge that we face is sometimes with searches for missing people, we don’t locate them.
"That can be due to the information that we have available at the time meaning that the area we’re looking in is not the area that they’re in, or it may be that they’ve done something to conceal themselves so well that we’re not able to locate them despite our best efforts and the efforts of all the other services involved. That can be really difficult to say we’ve done as much as is reasonably possible.”
Balancing callouts with family and work life also brings challenges. Volunteers are on call 24 hours a day. When they receive an alert, they indicate whether or not they can respond.
Emily Ledder lives in Mytholmroyd, a stone’s throw from the team’s base. “It’s a real adrenaline rush getting a call, whizzing around the house and getting all your stuff together, changing your clothes and getting to the base. You never know when you’re going to get a callout. It could be any time of the day or any time of the night. We’re always primed and ready to go.”
“It’s quite a commitment,” adds the 43-year-old, who joined the team in 2018. “You’ve got to be prepared to put the team before friends and family a lot of the time. If you get a callout and you’re partway through somebody’s birthday meal, you leave whatever social gathering you’re at and you respond to the team.
"You have to be flexible... People wouldn’t do it if they weren’t getting some kind of reward from it, whether that’s hanging out with like-minded people or knowing you’re helping people out of a sticky situation and potentially helping to save someone’s life.”
For CVSRT, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been felt not only in the rise in callouts, but also in changes to protocol. Because of concern around asymptomatic transmission, the team treats every patient as potentially Covid-19 positive to minimise the risk of large numbers of volunteers catching the virus or having to isolate.
That means wearing full PPE for all of their jobs - a helmet, goggles, gloves and face covering as well as waterpoofs from head to toe. “That brings challenges on a sunny, hot day, operating in that level of PPE, walking up hills, carrying heavy equipment,” says Rob. “It’s tough, it’s hard work.”
After each rescue, there’s a cleaning and decontamination process for the vehicles and equipment, with any washable or disposable kit being replaced before the next job and any other items fully disinfected.
The virus has also hit financially, with the cancellation or postponement of fundraising activities, which help generate the £35,000 a year cost of keeping the team operational. There’s been an 80 per cent decrease in donations.
“Clearly when our income through fundraising takes a hit, particularly at the magnitude we’ve seen over the past few months, it’s a huge concern to us,” says Rob.
“We’re fortunate that we do have structures that mean we are financially responsible and careful and at the moment we have reserves that mean we can continue to provide the service we do.
“But that reduction in funding is a huge concern to us... It really is a challenge for us going forward to keep our funding at a point where we can continue doing what we do.”