Call of duty on Sligo's mountain tops
A PHONECALL in the middle of the night usually means one thing for Alan Sayers – a person is in need of rescuing.
Call outs can be at any time but statistically they are more than likely to be at weekends and probably on Bank Holidays. It is always a crisis. Killarney native Alan, now in his eighth year as a member of the Sligo/Leitrim Mountain Rescue Team, admits it can take a toll on a person's personal and social life.
Several of the team spent New Year's Day in Donegal in what turned out to be the successful rescue of a Carlow man who fell down a cliff.
"Eight years would be around a good average for someone to spend with a mountain rescue team but I don't see myself faltering yet," says Alan.
A mental health nurse with the HSE, Alan came to Sligo 15 years ago and his background in hiking and mountaineering stood him in good stead.
Through his job he had First Aid Skills while he also had a strong sense of community involvement.
It's serious work and cannot be simply regarded as a hobby, he stresses "Certainly when a person joins it is pointed out that it is a responsibility they are taking on.
"They are told it will disrupt their own professional and personal life and it is 24 hours." Not all the calls are rescues. "Many times we don't find that missing person. It's not always successful.
"About six or seven per cent would be to remote areas to deal with people who are despondent.
"There is also a lot a body recovery work.
"That can be quite emotionally draining.
"We can come across seriously injured people and also the remains of people who have been outdoors for some time. "That is quite difficult," says Alan. The team provides counselling to members affected.
The Sligo-based team has 21 members with five trainees, who take 12 months to train.
"We've been hit hard by the recession like many groups, with several members having emigrated or migrated," he says.
Recruitment takes place every year.
"Ideally, anyone interested should come from a mountaineering background but the training is quite rigorous.
"Navigation, First Aid, tactical work and radio operation are the four main areas concentrated on initially. Once a member you also have to continue with training.
"Two of our members are now paramedics while we also have qualified radio controllers.
The team has been in existence since the 1980s and two years ago achieved a major objective by securing a premises.
The location in the County Council yard in the grounds of the old Sligo jail has proven ideal for meeting and storage.
Running the team is quite an expensive undertaking with the annual Ben Bulben Walk and flag day supplementing grant assistance from the Department of the Marine.
Vital to their operation says Alan is the Ford Transit van which is used for carrying equipment, and also a four wheel drive Landrover.
The van was given to them by the Red Cross and the jeep by the Department of Parks and Wildlife.
The team covers Sligo and Leitrim but they also answer calls to Mayo, Donegal and Fermanagh.
In the past they have gone on major searches in Wicklow and Kerry.
Normally, the call comes from the Gardai or the Coastguard.
The call-out officer will get a team of 12 together immediately while a second team will be on standby. There are about 20 requests a year for their services.
The team is also involved in events like the Warriors' Run and the An Post cycle tour.
And the most common mistake people make when they take to mountain walks and trails?
"Not being prepared, not being able to navigate and not carrying a map or a torch.
"People should know their route and how long it will take them to get back down."
Alan is not discouraging walkers and climbers.
"There's a lot of enthusiasm for the outdoors and we would encourage that.
"Many accidents and mishaps are unforeseen."
Rescuers can sometimes need rescuing.
"I haven't suffered any serious injury myself but some team members have.
"We do take precautions. I have great confidence in the team's ability but they are told their first priority is themselves, their own safety.
"That's the number one rule."