Cleveland RAYNET Group

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Search Incident

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On Sunday 11 Nov 1984, twenty children from Ampleforth College in North Yorkshire set off in groups on a two hour walk from Bilsdale Hall to a Scout adventure camp on the North York Moors.  Three 11 year old boys failed to turn up and at 19:00 hrs, North Yorkshire Police had been alerted and had called out the Cleveland Search & Rescue Team. A search of the general area took place in darkness and dense fog with no results.

Adjacent search teams were called out around 23:00 hrs but in the early hours of Monday, further escalation was necessary. The member teams of both the North East Rescue Panel and the Yorkshire Dales Rescue Panel were called out.  Cleveland RAYNET Group were called out to help with communications between many different search teams.

RAYNET received the callout by telephone at 05:50 hrs with instructions to RV at Stokesley Town Hall for briefing along with the newly arriving search teams. The first briefing would be at 06:30 hrs and briefings would be repeated as new teams arrived.

Two RAYNET members were on the air from home at 05:58 hrs. By 06:05 hrs, two members had been despatched. The 'home' net was closed down at 06:24 hrs. Fourteen members had called in at that time and thirteen had been despatched.

The first RAYNET member arrived at the RV point on motorbike and was sent straight away to Bloworth Crossing, a high point on the moors, reachable only by Land Rover or motorbike. The second member arrived at 06:54 hrs.

Rescue Control waited until enough people were present, then gave the sitrep and started to allocate locations.  Each team would work from a fixed team base on the Moors and were allocated pre-planned search areas. Every rescue team member signed on as he arrived at the RV point so that at the end of the incident, a check could be made to ensure that all personnel were safe; not leaving some overlooked, still searching the moors.

Rescue Control was kept busy deciding on which parts of the moors to concentrate the search, allocating search areas to teams, issuing previously prepared low-scale maps of each search area to the 'foreign' teams, deciding where the search dogs would be most useful and keeping in touch by rescue band radio with the teams already on the moors. Police officers on site were kept informed of progress.

At 07:24 hrs, the RAYNET Group Controller sent a RAYNET operator to Chop Gate village hall to provide comms between Rescue Control and the RAF rescue teams.  The RAF teams worked on military frequencies and their team base also had comms to their helicopter.  The RAF helicopter was currently grounded at Chop Gate village due to poor visibility.  The fog made flying too dangerous until visibility increased. The RAF team base also had a Morse Code HF radio link to the Air Rescue Co-ordination Centre.

A RAYNET car was sent to a team base at Clay Bank and the RAYNET control station was established in a car outside Stokesley Town Hall. Up to this time, a RAYNET operator at home in Middlesbrough had been acting as the net control.  That operator then acted as a relay to ensure that RAYNET control had contact with the mobiles as they went to their locations.

At 07:37 hrs, the Chop Gate RAYNET operator was on site but due to his location in Bilsdale, he had no direct comms. with control 6 miles away on the other side of a 1,300 foot moor top.  The Bloworth Crossing station was set up at 07:39 hrs and operated using a handportable radio with one spare battery pack.  The RAYNET member at Clay Bank came on the air at 07:41 hrs.  The first message came into control at 07:55 hrs from the RAF at Chop Gate.  To save the message being manually relayed, it was sent via an amateur radio repeater station fixed permanently at Bilsdale BBC TV station. The message stated that weather conditions were too bad for normal search methods and suggested that teams be dropped-in by helicopter at strategic points.

At 08:14 hrs, a RAYNET station was established at Battersby Plantation.  Six minutes later, control was passed from the RAYNET car outside the Town Hall to the station that had been set up inside the Town Hall in a room adjacent to Rescue Control. Police officers noted the locations of all RAYNET stations so that they could see how to contact each search area. Police cars were also stationed with the RAF team base at Chop Gate village.

Another RAYNET vehicle arrived at Blakey Rigg around 08:32 hrs and requested the telephone number of the Town Hall coin box telephone to provide an extra means of communication.

Message traffic was handled on rescue band from the searchers to the team bases and from the team bases to Control via RAYNET if there was no contact on rescue band.  The terrain of the North York Moors is such that from a given location, direct communication may be possible to a point thirty miles away, but it may be impossible to contact a search team two miles away on the other side of a hill.

Visibility at 08:45 hrs was good enough to use helicopters to drop teams into their search areas.  In addition, searching could be done from the helicopter in areas of good visibility and no flying hazards.

The search continued. Some team members that had been on the moors for many hours returned to the Town Hall for warmth and rest. The Town Hall caretaker had laid on a permanent supply of hot tea which was very welcome to those who had left their beds and driven straight to the RV point as well as to those who were wet and tired from the search.

At 09:14 hrs, control received a message from the RAF team base via RAYNET saying that the helicopter had three 11 year old boys on board, suffering from hypothermia.  One boy was asthmatic and they were being flown to the Friarage Hospital in Northallerton. This message was followed shortly after by a similar message via police radio.

Since the helicopter crew had other priorities, it took a while to confirm the identities of the three boys and to get the grid reference where they were found. This was necessary in case by co-incidence another group had been found in difficulties and the ones being searched for were still on the moor.

The incident was by no means ended.  The task then was to use all communications methods available to instruct all teams to abandon the search.  As the search and rescue personnel totalled 189 plus 9 search dogs, this took some time.

Once the emergency traffic had ceased, the RAYNET member at home in Middlesbrough was able to telephone members' employers to explain why they hadn't turned up for work.

A pub near the Town Hall prepared enough soup and sandwiches ready for the rescue Teams and RAYNET when they could eventually return. Transport was organised to get personnel from team bases back to Control and some teams were airlifted back to their team base.

As the personnel returned, they were debriefed by their team leaders, then eventually Rescue Control and North Yorkshire Police debriefed the team leaders.  Throughout the event the media had also been dealt with: press, local radio and TV.  Local radio had been used to assist in the callout of the rescue teams, for those away from a telephone.

Once all personnel had been accounted for, the comms. network could be closed down in an orderly manner.  As Control agreed each area of the moor was clear of searchers, RAYNET stations were stood down to return to Control for food and debrief.  As the event was not too protracted from the RAYNET point of view, it hadn't been necessary to turn out other members of the group who were available at home or at work.

The incident was reported nationally on radio and TV.  It had gone very well indeed with no real problems or delays on the RAYNET side. The search & rescue side of things went like a well-oiled machine. The RAF weren't averse to flying their helicopter on its side (didn't know they could do that) when they wanted to search a narrow valley where the rotor blades were in danger of hitting the hillside.

The police had co-ordinated the entire event.  The smooth and efficient running of the operation reflected the time, training and pre-planning that each organisation has put into its role. This RAYNET group, like most others, has had some exercises that were more like disasters and has made some abysmal errors.  Fortunately, there's nothing like learning from mistakes.  Even more importantly, the incident proved that good liaison, discussion and exercising together over a long period takes the bugs out of the system.

RAYNET groups in adjacent counties had not been alerted but a Yorkshire RAYNET Controller heard about the incident and telephoned to see if assistance was required. A member of newly formed West Auckland RAYNET in Durham had monitored the Cleveland Group from an early hour and could hear all stations.

She said it gave her confidence that the system worked and had previously secretly suspected that the sometimes slow but sure RAYNET operating procedure practised in exercises could collapse as operators attempted to get things done quicker. Apparently, the net sounded reasonably efficient to an outsider.

It was pleasing to hear that she gained confidence and learned from the operation as, the following day, newly formed West Auckland RAYNET was called out to an incident involving a chemical fire and a small scale evacuation...

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Page updated on 09 January 2017

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