People: Everyday cliffhangers with coastguard rescue

Chris Welsford, Chartered MCSI, decided to conquer his fear of heights and rescue injured people at the same time – by joining a coastguard cliff rescue team

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Chris Welsford, Chartered MCSI and founder of Ayres Punchard Investment Management, often has to dash out of a client meeting to respond to a call-out to rescue people on the south coast of the Isle of Wight.

His duties as a volunteer Coastguard Rescue Officer for the Ventnor Coastguard cliff rescue team include search and rescue of missing persons (and their pets), often to support the police, reporting and monitoring pollution and other coastal hazards, and dealing with wreckage or dead whales and dolphins on the shoreline. Coastguard Rescue Officers don’t use boats; it is a land-based service similar to inland mountain rescue. Officers are trained primarily for cliff, water and mud rescues.

Chris joined the Ventnor Coastguard cliff rescue team in 2002, largely, he says, as a way to challenge himself: “I was at a party, and while talking to one of the guests who was on the team, they mentioned they had a vacancy. I have always been a little scared of heights and decided this could be the cure I needed. I’ve also been a first aider since I was a teenager and the whole idea of rescuing people injured on the shore seemed very exciting indeed.”

Call-outs vary, from checking out a vessel in possible trouble, suspected ordnance or chemicals on the beach, to a full-scale cliff rescue following a fall, or even the recovery of a body. “We probably don’t deal with as many fatalities as the police, ambulance and fire services locally because of the specialist nature of what we do, but a fall down a cliff is likely to result in serious injury or death and on average our team has dealt with two fatalities a year over the last 15 years.

“In addition we are trained to act as ground crew for the rescue helicopter. We can be called to the local hospital to assist with medivacs to the mainland, carried out by the Coastguard helicopter. I’ve had to organise helicopter landing sites out on remote beaches and adjacent to cliff tops, sometimes in quite bad weather”, says Chris.

He is assessed every three years for the technical aspects of his work, “which means a day of being monitored and tested”, he attends a training evening every two weeks, and is regularly assessed for health and fitness.

Some team members will respond to incidents in the Coastguard Rescue Vehicle using blue lights and sirens, and the rest of the team will rendezvous at the scene. “Where everyone is coming from work or home most of us make our own way to the incident scene, but it all depends on the nature of the call. If we’re supporting the police in a search or a body recovery then we may well meet at the station first for a briefing, but that’s unusual.”

His pager is permanently on, and he can be called out any time. “All my clients are aware of this,” says Chris. “It can be quite demanding if we get a number of calls in quick succession or during the night, which can make the next day at work quite hard, but it’s definitely worth it.”

“It’s a real privilege to be trusted to respond to someone else’s call for help” 

Chris grew up in the Isle of Wight and went on to read Politics at the University of Southampton. His first job in financial services was in 1987 when he became a trainee client service executive. “Then in 1995 I’d decided I’d had enough of working for other people and left my job as a financial adviser and founded Ayres Punchard Investment Management,” he said.

Although Chris might feel slightly inconvenienced sometimes when his pager goes off, he feels it’s a real privilege to be trusted to respond to someone’s call for help: “You never know what the outcome is going to be and that uncertainty makes life interesting. Doing something for my community is definitely part of it, but it is quite liberating and life affirming when you have to drop everything you are doing and respond to another person’s call for help. It makes me feel good and puts some of life’s more petty problems in context,” he says.

Chris’s fellow Rescue Officers are from a wide and varied background: his boss is a commercial fishing boat skipper, his deputy is a Trading Standards Officer. There is also a BT Open Reach engineer, a plumber, a joinery manager, landscape gardener, garage door installer, tree surgeon and a stove enameller.

Chris has huge admiration for his current Station Officer, Mike Howell and his Deputy SO James Potter: “Their dedication and professionalism is immense. They manage, motivate and support the team brilliantly. Bearing in mind we’re all volunteers, that’s a significant achievement. They have both personally carried out numerous rescues, on the end of the line, so to speak, so they know exactly what they are asking of us and we completely trust their judgment and happily place our safety in their hands as a result of that trust.” Chris’s wife and children also play an important role: “Dad being paged during a meal or in the night is not uncommon but they still support me and never complain.”

The rescue incidents in which Chris is involved are traumatic for all. Sometimes they are completely life altering or terminal: “The most memorable jobs are often the ones where we have worked extremely closely with colleagues in very challenging conditions to achieve our objective. That leads to friendships based on mutual respect and shared experiences. Unfortunately these are sometimes body recoveries from inaccessible spots and what most people would consider the worst jobs.”

The team, of which Chris is one of 12, also provides education in local schools, clubs and other community organisations about how to stay safe at sea and along the coast. It is becoming increasingly difficult, says Chris, to find employers who are willing to release their employees for call-outs. “Most of the guys I work with are self-employed and those that aren’t have to have very understanding employers.” Chris’s team currently has two vacancies for Coastguard Rescue Officers, and we hope any local employer having read this piece might consider supporting an employee, thereby putting something back into the local community.

This article was originally published in the September 2016 print edition of The Review. The print edition is available to all members who opt in to receive it, except student members. All eligible members who would like to receive future editions in the post should log in to MyCISI, click on My Account/Communications and set their preference to 'Yes'.
Published: 03 Oct 2016
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