UK contract marks ‘new era’ for SAR

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The UK is to have a new fleet of faster and more modern search and rescue helicopters, the British government has announced. The new service will see search and rescue (SAR) operations provided by contracted civilian crews, and the government has today started the procurement process for a contract lasting around 10 years.

Under existing arrangements, search and rescue is provided jointly by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), which operates a fleet of Sea King helicopters from eight Royal Air Force and Royal Navy bases, with a further four civilian bases operated under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA). The new arrangements will see the end of military involvement in a dedicated helicopter search and rescue service, which, said the government, will allow the armed forces to focus their activity on front-line operations and enable the MoD to meet its previously announced intention to retire its fleet of Sea Kings by March 2016.

Shipping Minister Mike Penning said: “Every day around the UK, people undertake a range of activities where knowing there’s a reliable SAR service if something goes wrong is absolutely vital. The current arrangements have served us well for decades, and we are grateful to the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force for their great dedication in helping deliver an exemplary SAR service over the years. But we cannot ignore the fact that, after their sterling service to our country, the Sea Kings are nearing the end of their life and it is time to look to the future. Commercial operations are nothing new in this area – the MCA’s search and rescue functions have been provided on a contract basis for almost 30 years – and this system has served us well. This new, long-term contract will see the UK served by some of the most modern, well-equipped helicopters in the world.”

Under the plans published today, search and rescue operations at RAF Boulmer would end in 2015, and at Portland when the MCA contract expires during 2017. The winning bidder will be then be expected to operate from 10 locations around the UK, but provide at least the same level of service as at present.

In a written statement, Secretary of State for Transport Justine Greening explained: “Bidders for the future service will be able to put forward options which will utilise a mixed fleet of modern helicopters based on the capabilities required at each of the bases (such as range, carrying capacity and endurance). The services will be capable of delivery by different contractors providing complementary services.” She added: “The introduction of a modern fleet of fast, reliable helicopters will lead to major improvements in the capability available from the present mix of helicopters. Modern helicopters operating from 10 full-time bases can not only continue to meet all current service requirements but also provide faster flying times to a large part of the UK search and rescue region, as well as providing a more reliable service. This will therefore be reflected in the new contract.”

Today’s announcement follows the cancellation of SAR-H, a previous search and rescue helicopter procurement programme, in February this year. Under these former proposals, SAR would have been provided by a commercial operator through a Private Finance Initiative using a combination of military and civilian crews. The project was cancelled following the discovery of irregularities by winning bidder the Soteria consortium.

Greening went on to give details of the procurement process: “Given the complexity of the issues that need to be considered by bidders during the procurement, I intend that this procurement will be undertaken using the competitive dialogue procedure. As far as is practicable however, I intend to run the competition using lean procurement principles during some stages of the procurement. This will, I hope, both expedite and simplify some stages of the procurement that would ordinarily be time consuming and costly for industry to participate in.”

Greening said she expects to award this new contract in early 2013 to give the future service provider time to mobilise the new capability.

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