Norfolk search and rescue goes French

Amy GrayVital search and rescue missions across Norfolk and Suffolk will be taken over by a private French consortium in 2012.Amy Gray

Vital search and rescue missions across Norfolk and Suffolk will be taken over by a private French consortium in 2012.

The two Sea King helicopters at Wattisham Airfield in Suffolk will be replaced with a 'modern, fast, reliable' Sikorsky S-92 helicopter, the Ministry of Defence has announced.

The French Soteria consortium won the �6bn contract, which will be signed later in the summer.

Ron Westrup, a search manager for Suffolk Lowland Search and Rescue volunteer service, fears the private firm could charge for its rescues.

'If the service is going to a private company, there's nothing to say they have to operate the service free of charge,' he said.

'The fear is this could mean the service people have benefitted from for so long may be charged for.'

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But Al Green, a Ministry of Defence spokesman, strongly denied fears the new service would be paid for.

The Royal Air Force and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency currently operate the life-saving service. Under the plans, Soteria plans to retain 66 out of the current 214 military air crews, with civilian air crew, trained to the same standards, making up the shortfall.

But Mr Green added that none of the search and rescue staff would be made redundant, but could be moved to other areas of the RAF.

Wattisham is one of 12 bases across the UK to provide crucial search and rescue cover around the clock with about four crews flying the Sea King helicopters from the base.

There are currently 40 Sea Kings carrying out rescues, but it is expected the new fleet of aircraft will be reduced to between 25 and 30.

Announcing the decision, Quentin Davies, minister for defence equipment and support, said the new service would continue to operate from all 12 bases.

'The future service will benefit from modern, fast, reliable helicopters and will continue to operate from 12 bases in order to ensure that it provides a fully effective SAR [search and rescue] service,' he said.

The new service will be phased in site by site, expected to start in 2012.