2020 MARKED 40 years of the North West Mountain Rescue Team (NWMRT), the emergency search and rescue service for Northern Ireland, with its members ready at any time to draw on decades of service to spring into action for anyone in need in these early days of the new year.

Established in Derry City in 1980, the organisation initially covered the northwest of Northern Ireland, but has since extended its operational area to include all of Northern Ireland, with the exception of the Mourne Mountains, which are covered by another team.

NWMRT provides a 24-hour call-out service at the request of the PSNI, requiring a high level of commitment from team members who are expected to respond in all weather conditions, 365 days of the year.

In order to respond quickly, the team is organised into three sections, based in Enniskillen, Magherafelt and Ballymena, and known as West, Central and East Sections respectively.

There are 59 members currently in the NWMRT, with 20 in the Fermanagh area.

Keith Thompson, from Ballinamallard, is Team Leader for the NWMRT, and has been involved in the organisation for around 15 years.

Speaking to The Impartial Reporter about why he initially decided to join, he said: "I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors. I’d come up through the Scouts, and it's just a chance to give something back, to learn new skills, give first aid and help out a bit.

"Quite honestly, I love getting out in the hills, and I thoroughly enjoy the training. I’ve made some good friends, and we have good times at the training.

"Although it’s a very serious business, it’s not all serious – we do have a good laugh," he noted of the service's strong camaraderie, adding that the West team would train two nights a month and they would try to get the whole team together for one day a month.

Explaining the types of calls they receive in the Fermanagh area, Keith said they're related to "hill walkers and other people out walking and getting lost, bad weather, having slips and falls; a good range of activity".

He continued: "We would then also do work with [people affected by] despondency and searching for people in that line, but a lot of our calls tend to be people genuinely having become waylaid, or who had an accident in the hills and need help."

When asked if they have seen an increase in the number of call-outs due to more people taking up hiking during the coronavirus lockdowns, Keith said: "I wouldn’t say a lot more, but there have been a few more call-outs and we’re getting them in different areas.

"People are not drawn as much to, or allowed to go, to the high hills, so they are having slips and falls in what traditionally would be quiet areas for us. A challenge on their own doorstep, maybe."

Over his 15 years of volunteering for the NWMRT, Keith says he has seen big changes in the professionalism of the team.

"The vehicles we’re using, the equipment we’re using – everything has really stepped up over the past number of years," said Keith. "The clothing, to be quite honest, is probably to a point unrecognisable from when I joined 15 years ago.

"The equipment and clothing are just so much better, and so much safer for our own members on the hill, as well as then obviously being able to help other people who are in difficulty," he said.

NWMRT advice for hiking in winter conditions

The NWMRT are advising hikers to ensure careful planning and consider their clothing choices prior to embarking on a hike in Winter conditions.

Before starting a hike, hikers should check the weather forecast for the entire day, and have more than one route planned in case the weather changes.

Hikers should start early in the morning, as Winter evenings get darker earlier and colder. They should let others know where they are going, and when they plan to be back.

In terms of equipment, hikers should ensure to have a map and compass with them as well as torches; head torches, and hand-held with spare batteries. Having a fully charged phone and additional power pack is also important.

Hats are essential, as they are a good way of covering a major area of the head to prevent heat loss.

The neck is another major area of heat loss. There are a number of pieces of clothing to protect the neck, but a head over (tube) is recommended, as this can be adapted to fulfil many functions.

Your hands are an extremity and will get cold quickly if not covered. Gloves have the advantage of retaining dexterity, and wearing two sets will improve heat retention.

Mittens can either be worn over the top or separately, and are much warmer than gloves as heat is exchanged between your fingers.

A jacket covers the core of your body – the area where the body wants to keep your blood when it's cold.

The jacket should protect against rain, snow, hail, wind and cold. It will not keep you warm alone, but is to be used in conjunction with warm layers.

Cold weather is where the layering system comes into its own, allowing you to stay at the right temperature, whatever the weather.

These layers normally consist of a sweat/base layer and a warmth layer. However, an indefinite number of layers can be used to trap air between them.

For trousers, your choice is between waterproof or soft shell. Soft shell is 70 per cent waterproof and quick-drying.

Also consider a base layer for additional heat, and wear a waterproof layer over your trousers if your normal trousers aren't waterproof.

In snow, gaters are essential, otherwise snow will enter the tops of the boots and rise up under your trousers.

They will protect against water, which assists in keeping your feet dry and therefore warm. Consider salopettes as another option.

In Winter, it is recommended to carry a complete base layer for additional warmth. Feet are an extremity and prone to feeling cold, but clean, dry socks will go a long way to keeping them warm.

Hikers should also consider bringing a survival kit in case of emergency, including a storm shelter, First Aid kit, hot drinks and high-energy bars.

It has been discovered that 95 per cent of mountain users would dial 999 and ask for an ambulance if someone was injured or became ill whilst in the mountains.

However, this is not the best option, as ambulances can't get up mountain paths and air ambulances can't land on steep group.

In a mountain emergency, people should dial 999 (or 112) and ask for the police, and then ask for Mountain Rescue.