Island expertise and experience is to lead the UK in a national upgrade of search and rescue operations.

Two officers of HM Coastguard in Stornoway will lead a new national course, bringing 100 search advisers up to a standard where they can lead and co-ordinate lost and missing persons searches (L&MPS) alongside police forces UK-wide.

Area commander Murdo Macaulay and Stornoway-based training and standards officer Paul Tunstall were in England last week, making final preparations for the course, which will see nine cohorts of trainees gaining accreditation as Coastguard search advisers between now and 2023.

Coastguard search advisers are licenced to provide tactical and operational direction during searches in both the coastal environment and inland in the UK domain.

Area commander Murdo Macaulay said: “The new course is designed to draw together the experience of the two agencies – police and coastguard – who have statutory responsibility for search and rescue.

“Our lead role in the uplift of skills across the UK has come about because essentially, in the Western Isles, this is nothing new. We already work together with the police on searches for lost and missing persons and the course will effectively formalise the really good set-up we have here.”

Murdo and Paul – who has taken the lead on preparing training materials and structuring the training – will be delivering the course with a team of professionals based at the police national search centre in Ryton, near Coventry in the West Midlands.

The first course will be delivered in October this year, having been delayed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Twelve trainees are expected to take part in each week-long training course.

Murdo said: “Each cohort will receive training on the tactical and planning element of search and rescue. They will then be issued with a five-year licence, and during that five years they will have to maintain their competencies with continued training and practice.

“All of those attending have plenty of practical experience, so the training will be building up their management and planning expertise. They’ll then be able to work with police search advisers to plan and co-ordinate searches.”

After three years, the result should be a network of up to 100 licenced Coastguard search advisers, located at Coastguard operations centres from the south coast of England to Shetland.

Locally, the expertise that already exists in the islands means that Coastguard Rescue Teams are now being deployed – by lifeboat, ferry and helicopter – to work on searches outside their own immediate area.

The varied terrain, close community networks and commitment of teams to volunteering means that the Western Isles lead the field in search and rescue, especially where multi-agency working is concerned.

Maritime operations controller Angus Maciver said: “Paul and Murdo are in a unique position to lead this national endeavour because we have been so active in multi-agency search and rescue here in the islands.

“We are an island where people have a natural community tendency to be interdependent, rather than independent. All our services have worked very well together and that gives is the experience from which to develop this important national initiative.”

Pictures show search planning in action during recent training activity and the new handbook and licence patch created for the training course (HM Coastguard, Western Isles, Skye and Lochaber).