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Sumburgh Airport water rescue facilities set for upgrade

Sumburgh Airport is one of 11 airports under HIAL's wing.Sumburgh Airport.

AN UPGRADED fast rescue craft and new facilities for accessing the sea from runways could be on the way for Sumburgh Airport after its operator pledged to invest in its water rescue facilities.

Moves are underway to scope out a replacement water rescue craft, while staff are looking into the possibility of installing a hydraulic platform to combat existing difficulties in accessing the water.

It comes after Highlands and Islands Airports Ltd (HIAL) carried out a review of its water rescue capabilities at its network of airports.

South mainland councillor Robbie McGregor said it was a “fantastic development”, while Shetland MSP Beatrice Wishart also hailed the news.

The Sumburgh based water rescue craft being launched from West Voe. Photo: Ronnie Robertson

The launchpad for the review was the fatal helicopter accident in the waters off Sumburgh in 2013, in which the airport’s rigid inflatable water rescue craft was used.

It took almost an hour to reach the scene due to tidal conditions, and with a couple of crew members injured in the sea conditions, safety of employees was a key factor in HIAL’s review.

Seven of HIAL’s 11 airports have water rescue provision, including rescue crafts, a jet ski and a mud rescue team. They are at Sumburgh, Barra, Benbecula, Dundee, Islay, Kirkwall and Stornoway.

The fast rescue crafts allow crews to head out onto the water in case of an accident.

The nearest water based rescue service to Sumburgh Airport after the airport craft is the Lerwick lifeboat some 25 miles away, and news of the review last year sparked worry that HIAL’s provision might be withdrawn.

HIAL, however, has now confirmed that it will “continue to invest in training and new equipment, where necessary, to ensure effective shore-based capabilities are maintained”.

Sumburgh Airport manager Andrew Farquhar said: “The review, which has included a series of public consultations, has concluded that fast rescue craft provision should be retained in Sumburgh and the current craft should be replaced with a more versatile vessel.

“A project to scope out the requirements for a replacement of the rescue craft has already begun.”

The responsibility for the co-ordination of rescue at sea lies with the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

HIAL’s review considered the risks associated at Sumburgh and recommended the retention of the water rescue craft to respond within the 1,000m designated rescue area beyond the end of the runways.

Farquhar added that the airport team is “exploring the use of a hydraulic platform to further enhance the provision and mitigate the risk to staff associated with access to the rock armour sea defences”.

Sumburgh’s main runway extends into the sea at each end with areas of rock armour that form sea defences.

The rock armour is said to be particularly hazardous with slippery surfaces, large voids and a 45 degree gradient down to sea level.

There is currently a dedicated slipway for launching the boat, but a hydraulic platform would be designated for the rock armour area and be related to shore-based rescue.

South mainland councillor McGregor, whose ward includes the airport, said: “I’m just delighted to see that HIAL have taken safety so seriously at the airport, and are making a proper investment on the equipment that’s required.”

Shetland MSP Wishart said it was the “right decision”.

“Safety in and around our seas is paramount and that must include up to date rescue facilities and trained personnel to operate equipment,” she said.

“It is important that any new rescue craft and equipment is suitable for local sea conditions to ensure incidents are responded to quickly if they happen.”