Has the time arrived for greater consolidation among emergency services—the “blue light” operators? At the recent Helitech Conference at Duxford Imperial War Museum in the UK, that was precisely the question being asked by Richard Folkes, OBE, Head of UK Government and Corporate Affairs at AgustaWestland. His premise was that, in the “age of austerity,” the UK government (and branches thereof) has around 113 blue light helicopters operating from 67 bases across the nation. From the Search and Rescue Force, to police helicopters, medical emergency helicopters (mainly charity based) and those who would actually like to invest in helicopters such as the fire service.
Folkes suggests that now is the right time to consider this in earnest in the UK: the SAR-H force contract is being re-bid and there are plans to unify police helicopters across the UK into the National Police Air Service (NPAS). He says that there are around 35 police helicopters at 32 bases. The problem is that much spending occurs at a local level, certainly maintenance and training. The NPAS proposal would see the number reduced to 23 police helicopters with a reserve of three more, operating from only 20 bases.
There really needs to be a rationalization of aircraft against tasks. Although there are many smaller helicopters used for observation, such as in the case of the police, there is also—on distinct occasions—clearly a need for larger helicopters. Sometimes the need is longer range, such as in the case of maritime rescues which can occur far away from the coastline: perhaps the need to recover a sick fisherman; or even recovery of a stricken aircraft’s crew (be they military or perhaps civilian such as in the case of helicopters carrying oil workers).
At other times heavier loads might need to be lifted—and for this Royal Air Force Chinooks have participated in major exercises with the police and the fire service to lift heavy equipment to a major incident. But the military helicopters—other than the SAR force—would be part of a general mix that could be called upon as they are now, rather than integrated.
While Folkes does not see a grand design for a government-wide helicopter force happening anytime soon, he does suggest that there is an opportunity now to move in the right direction and asks, “can we afford not to examine the potential of a more integrated cross-government approach?”
He sees the need to develop coherent roles, requirements and responsibilities across an aviation capability. This would include the need for common tasking, in the way that search and rescue operations have been admirably coordinated by the Air Rescue Coordination Centre (ARCC) at RAF Kinloss.
The key advantage moving forward would be a commonality of aircraft, infrastructure, training, maintenance repair and overhaul. In short, the economies of scale across a wealth of aircraft would progress towards a more harmonized future, rather than the present collection of disparate organizations.