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Derbyshire Cave Rescue - A complete new world of underground Communications

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On a cold winter’s evening in early January I went on a journey further North to visit 3 gentlemen with a particularly niche set of rescue skills. These were core members of the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation who kindly allowed me to visit them in Buxton to talk to them about everything from underground communication to rescue types; and most importantly this was all done over a nice hot cup of tea!

What is the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation?

DCRO is a non-profit rescue organisation made up of around 100 members. They are a team whose work ties in closely with the great work of their ‘cousins’ in Mountain Rescue and their primary purpose is to rescue cavers when they run into difficulty. They are one of 15 UK teams that make up the British Cave Rescue Council.

Why was the DRCO formed?

Bill explains that back in 1952 someone raised the important question “who is going to look after us, as cavers, if something goes wrong?” Since they founded, that same year, they have been called out nearly 400 times rescuing both people and animals. On average they attend 6 rescues per year.

Underground Communications

So now we come onto the special underground communication solutions. Since working at Zycomm I’ve come across many ways radios can be used from communicating on mountains to tunnels but their unique underground terrain requires something rather specific.

3 Core Members of DCRO

From Left Anthony Matthews DCRO Fundraising and PR Officer, Pete Dell Equipment Officer and Bill Whitehouse MBE (Former Chairman of Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation and current Vice Chairman of the British Cave Rescue Council)

A quick overview of the generation technology

Gen 1 Mole Phone - In WW1 it was discovered, accidently more than anything, that moisture in the ground can help with transmissions. British engineers adapted this to use a magnetic field in order to communicate underground; transmitting messages through solid rock to talk between the trenches. After the two world wars this technology was largely forgotten until the 1970’s when another British engineer and caver Bob Makin invented the Mole Phone, a multi-purpose device that could also be used to radio locate the location of a cave passage on the surface by placing an underground beacon and then ‘listening’ for the signal whilst walking around on the surface with a special aerial.

Gen 2 Heyphones – Developed in the 80’s by Richard Hey as an improvement to the Mole Phone, Also utilising magnetic fields, this technology is still at the forefront of cave rescue communications today, using a two-aerial set up using tent pegs to earth the signal between two locations. Pete tells me “The effectiveness is very much down to ground condition and underlying geology but the main key benefit is its ability to work through many solid walls.”

Heyphones Caving Communications on the surface Heyphones Caving Communications Equipment  underground

Heyphone on the surface and Heyphone being used in a cave on a training exercise

Gen 3 – System Nicola - Created by Graham Nayler, has a unique design which minimises the in-points (such as switches) to minimise dirt. As shown from the picture above, caves are murky and muddy places, however Bill assures me that equipment is usually well insulated as they take them down in boxes. All of these generation solutions only work for a few hundred meters so a surface network needs to be set up to relay messages by more conventional means to the rescue control point.

The Nicola Project is a French/British collaborative development, part sponsored by the British Cave Rescue Council, aimed at getting a better communications set made for cave rescue work. In July 1996, Nicola Dollimore from Rossendale and five of her friends were tragically killed in floods in the Gouffre Berger cave, and Nicola's family started a fund which has given rise to a new generation of underground radio. Trips to the Berger now make use of these sets to routinely call the surface from Camp 1 to check on the weather before setting off either down into the Cascades, or up into the flood-prone entrance pitches.

They showed me the vast range of equipment they have available in their purpose-built vehicle, which looks similar to a large ambulance, where they store everything from stretchers to blankets. Usual procedure is to send in first responders with a ‘Crash Bag’ full of first aid supplies, warm clothing, portable shelters and then send in more kit when they know what’s required for each specific rescue. They also share a large drying room with mountain rescue in their Buxton premises allowing them to wash their kit upon return, a mammoth task after exiting the muddy caves.

 System Nicola caving communications equipment

System Nicola in action

Plenty of room for two-way radio on the surface too

To co-ordinate the rescue efforts a lot goes on above the surface too. They use an array of radios which they keep on charge at their base. They have a number of licenced search and rescue frequencies utilising radio channels and allowing them to talk to specific groups of people. They also keep unlicenced PMR sets to use on open days, this means they do not need to pay Ofcom to use a radio that is used so infrequently.

PMR radio used in a caving rescue

A PMR radio being used with a single wire lowered down a 70m deep shaft on an actual rescue to communicate with the jockey been hauled with the casualty.

The craziest rescues

They once had a rescue take over 15 hours with over 50 cavers involved extracting an injured caver through over a kilometre of semi-flooded horizontal mine passage. Pete explains that having so many rescuers involved doesn’t always mean everyone is ‘on-site’ at the same time but with the physical stamina required you need people to swap out to keep the momentum going.

Of course not all rescues involve Cavers, with a long history of mining in Derbyshire dating back before Roman times they also have their fair share of walkers and dogs who sometimes find themselves unexpectedly discovering a long lost shaft as well as lambs that like to find gaps in shaft lids. They were once called out due to a cow that somehow managed to walk down into an old mine adit (a horizontal passage leading into a mine for the purposes of access or drainage) – which was able to turn around with the assistance of the DCRO.

The DCRO involvement in the Thailand cave rescue

The incredible cave rescue of 12 boys from the Wild Boars football team and their coach in June-July 2018 was a huge collaboration from cave experts around the world!

Pete Dell, equipment officer was involved in arranging for over 4 Heyphone systems to go to Thailand which directly helped cavers communicate during the infamous rescue

Anthony who heads up the PR and Fundraising side of DCRO says “after the Thailand news broke due to the time difference I woke up to a huge number of notifications. Our online following went from 100s to 1000s overnight! I had to keep my Ipad essentially glued in front of me so I could moderate our social site, take local information requests from the media or direct the bigger interview requests from across the world to Bill, who is also the vice chairman of the BCRC, to explain how the next steps in the rescue might play out”


So what made them get into caving originally?

They look at each other knowingly and tell me if I spoke to over 500 cavers I’d probably get 500 answers!

Pete Dell: For me it was an adventure weekend, I went along and from then on for a whole year I went caving every weekend

Bill Whitehouse: We were asked if we want to sign up to go ‘UP’ (e.g. into the mountains) or ‘Down’ into the caves, I didn’t want to go up…so I put my name on to go down and the rest is history.

Anthony Matthews: I was already into climbing and one day, whilst wearing a headtorch, I found a hole in the rock I was climbing, I burrowed in until my rope ran out and I rightfully dared go no further, it got me thinking about whether caving was something I could look into, so the next weekend I did.


Some of the main reasons for call outs

Overdue Parties

In a world of mobile phones people in most environments take risks ‘safe’ in the knowledge they can reach someone if they fall into difficulty. There are two big differences with caves. Firstly the majority of people who require cave rescue are usually experienced cavers, apart from the occasional shoulder injury on stag do in show caves for example, most cavers go in knowing the risks and one of those main risks is knowing they cannot readily communicate if they run into difficulties. This is where the Callout System comes into play. Let’s say two cavers e.g. Pete and Bill want to go caving and they plan to enter Jug Holes, Matlock. They will inform trusted friends or family that they plan to enter the cave at say 10am and to call someone if they have not resurfaced by 2pm. If 2pm goes by without a phonecall then Anthony (in this case their appointed person) will ring the police and ask to be put through to cave rescue. The local cave rescue team will be notified and send out an alert to their members. Finally, they will arrive at the cave and search for the overdue party if there is still no contact.

Anthony tells me it can be difficult to get the exit time right. Sometimes things take longer than expected and other times people can run into difficulties early, for example breaking an ankle. He tells the story of a women who went caving solo, not recommended as you can’t then send your companion for help. She told her husband to call if she hadn’t emerged by 10pm but broke her ankle at 11am. She was fine, but that’s a long time to wait injured in a cave.

Why do so many cavers get tired?

I noticed on the call-out page of the DCRO website that there were many instances which describe cavers getting tired. This confused me as surely these experienced cavers are quite fit given the physical strength often rescued to explore these caves.

They used Castleton’s Garland pot as an example.

Bill explains that with hill walks generally speaking most ramblers start off walking uphill first, they do the hard part and can leisurely trek down again at their own pace; however with caving this is in reverse and usually they have to go down first a.k.a the easy bit. They may abseil down and then travel many miles before turning round.  “Often just 15 minutes from the entrance they find they don’t have the energy to climb back up.” They have a special tripod to help lift people out if they can’t be supported in climbing up with a rescuer.

Has the nature of rescues changed over time?

In a word yes. There are far fewer rescues due to caver’s lights failing. Cavers wear helmets for protection but in earlier days the bulbs on these helmets would go out leaving the cavers in pitch blackness, just a little terrifying! Now lights can last 5 days and are a lot smaller making it easier to carry backup lights.

One of the other big differences with caving has been the change to clothing recommended for cavers. In the early days cavers would go in with ‘one layer of wool’ which would be ripped extensively by the rough and unforgiving nature of the underground terrain. Luckily clothing has evolved from the old ‘goon suits’; wetsuits now make a significant difference however these still present their own challenges in the abrasive caving conditions. Anthony tells me “Clothing wise we tend to wear a fleece underneath and a more hard-wearing oversuit for most outings, we use wetsuits for caves with lots of deep water.” You can find more information at newtocaving.com.

The Golden Hour, or lack thereof

For most general rescue situations, a car crash for example, first responders pay attention to the ‘golden hour’, the time up to one hour when, following a traumatic injury, the highest likelihood of survival occurs if they receive medical attention. Not so with caving; Bill tells me. “often its 2 hours or more from cavers being hurt in the cave before the alarm is even sounded” Pete brings up a huge map showing just how large and complex this cave networks can be! On the plus side this does mean that if the person is still alive when they get to them there is nearly always a successful outcome.

Who joins cave rescue?

They welcome new members and they don’t need to be local to Derbyshire. Bill explains “most rescue teams recruit locally but for us we are most interested in where people go at the weekend”.

Read more about joining the Derbyshire Cave Rescue Team

Pete explains, that they only open membership to experienced cavers because they need to know their team are very happy in the underground environment. Essentially so they don’t find themselves feeling vulnerable and in need of rescue themselves! cave rescues aren’t by their nature the most comfortable of scenarios.

As previously mentioned they have around 100 members which they can message en masse when an alert is sounded, the core group and a reserve group made up of very experienced cavers who, having been core members in the past may not be able to maintain the same level of commitment but have enough expertise to work alongside the core group should there be a large-scale rescue. Some members come all the way from London for training! Some cavers have particularly areas of expertise from advance communications underground engineering, divers or even explosives.

Anthony Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation and Hannah Zycomm

Anthony from DCRO and Hannah Ingram from Zycomm (Marketing)

Their symbols

They have two main logos, the first one in blue shown below is for the British Cave Rescue Council (the mountain rescue logo upside down to show their close links) which all 15 cave rescue teams are members of and the second one designed by Bill Whitehouse himself is the individual team logo. I’m told each of the 15 teams in the UK have their own unique logo, as well as unique character.

They were about to start their quarterly committee meeting, so I left them to it and drove back to Ripley, a lovely journey across the Peak District. I highly recommend it.

Cave rescue and Derbyshire Cave Rescue Organisation

How can you help?

Most years DCRO manages to run on a small budget of around £6,000 but Anthony explains this does not include big purchases or ongoing contributions to a new vehicle fund. "This year we will need to spend over £16,000 on a new systems to keep up with legislation changes and replacement of damaged and worn out equipment." They rely on donations to do the great work that they do and every member is an unpaid volunteer. Please do consider donating to this great cause.

Donate to Derbyshire Cave Rescue 

Article By Hannah Ingram Marketing Executive of Zycomm with many thanks to the DCRO particularly Anthony Matthews, Bill Whitehouse and Pete Dell.


If you liked this blog the following links may be of interest:

Read more about Cave Rescue on the DCRO website 

Read our Peak District Mountain Rescue Case Study

Read more about our two way radios on our Products Page

Looking for radios to use on the surface? To discuss two way radio options for your business Contact Zycomm