It's often when weather conditions are at their most dangerous that our search and rescue teams have to kit up and head off into the hills to save lives. It's a tough job, but someone has to do it, and nowadays women, as well as men, are happy to volunteer.

IT'S a foul night and you're snug and warm in bed. The pager goes off. A walker has not come back from the hills. Or a confused old lady has gone walkabout. Maybe a child is missing.

You've already done a hard day's work and you have work again tomorrow. All the same, you get up and dressed, go out into the wild weather and become part of a well trained team to look for the missing person.

Would you want to do it? And for nothing? Exactly. That's what makes the search and rescue teams so special.

Like lifeboatmen, they are trained to dauntingly professional standards, are a vital part of the emergency services. Yet they are all volunteers. "It sounds awfully cheesy to say it, but you really want to give something back," says Izzy Barnes. "I've always been a climber and a hillwalker and this just seemed the next step."

Catherine Turnbull and Helen Mortimer agree. "I've always loved being outdoors," says Catherine. "This way I'm not just doing it for my own pleasure, but doing something useful at the same time. There's a point to it."

Izzy, Catherine and Helen, along with Fiona Lovatt and Karen Fisher, are all members of the 40-strong Teesdale and Weardale Search and Rescue Team. Based in Barnard Castle, in purpose-built premises behind the police station, they have all made a regular commitment to their voluntary job.

They train at least once a fortnight, usually once a week, and also have weekend exercises once a month - often somewhere cold and snowy. As well as knowing their patch, they know about advanced first aid, equipment, climbing, rope rescue, radio, communication, field skills and other specialist areas, including coordinating with other services, including helicopters.

They may not be professionals, but they're certainly not amateurs.

The team has two impressive vehicles, one as a mobile control room complete with computer links, and also a Land Rover that can carry stretcher casualties and ford deep water. They have a search and rescue dog, Meg, a canoe, and a climbing wall where they can practise tricky crag rescues. They have the skill and the equipment to cope with just about anything.

It's a long way from when they started out nearly 40 years ago in a hut at High Force.

Then there are the call outs...

The team covers the whole of County Durham, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, whenever the police or the emergency services call on them. A large map on the control room wall pinpoints where everyone lives so they can get the people closest, quickest, with the best local knowledge.

"People have jobs, lives, so we can't always get everyone, but we always have a core of people on call who can respond immediately and then can call on more when needed. "

Like most mountain rescue operations, TWSRT are a cheerfully egalitarian bunch. Search and rescue is, above all, a team effort and each person has to pull his - or her - weight. Sometimes literally. The women in the team receive - and expect - no concessions. "We're expected to cope with everything, including carrying heavy stretchers," says Helen.

Helen's partner is also in the team, which makes life easier. Izzy has " a very understanding husband" - but certainly that pager can sometimes cause chaos, especially at two o'clock in the morning. They get about 40 call-outs a year, sometimes to remote barely accessible fellsides high in the North Pennines, but other times much closer to home.

Although the team's motto is "Saving lives in wild and remote places", much of their work is not up on the hills but increasingly on the edge of towns and urban areas, often looking for people who are confused or depressed and have just wandered off.

"Sometimes, in cases like that, it's an advantage to be a woman. Some people find us easier to deal with, find it more reassuring when we're there," says Izzy.

The high points of their job are clearly the times they can find people and get them to safety. "When everything you've trained for comes together it's very rewarding," says Izzy. The low points are the occasions when they're looking for a missing person and find a body.

"That's bad. You go home thinking about what they went through, what they were thinking of, how they must have felt. Emotionally, that can be very difficult. "

Then, of course, there are the times when they're out looking for someone reported missing, who turns out not to be missing at all.

"It's a bit disheartening if you've been out all night searching on the hills in the rain and cold while they've been tucked up in bed safe and warm all the time. But at least that has a happy ending."

Search and rescue is not cheap. Just to keep it running takes around £12,000 a year - and that's without major purchases such as their specialist vehicles and high tech equipment. As a charity, they rely on grants and donations - which means as well as the training and rescue work, they also do fund raising as well.

Of course, they often have donations from people they have rescued. "One woman who we just carried to an ambulance years ago still sends us a very generous cheque every year," says Izzy. And there have been many appreciative letters and cards, though, amazingly, some people don't even say thank you.

Izzy had been with the team for more than over five years, Helen transferred from Scarborough and Catherine joined when she returned to the area a year ago. They are always looking for more volunteers - and associate members - and the team runs a cadet force for boys and girls aged between 16 and 18, who train alongside the adult teams.

But despite all that egalitarianism, if you're out in the cold and are found by a search and rescue team, you might be particularly glad if you're found by a woman.

"Apparently," says Izzy, "women give out more body heat than men, which is very useful for casualties with hypothermia."

But let's hope, in the nicest possible way, that's one hug you'll never need.

* Teesdale and Weardale Search and Rescue Team are based at Bede Kirk, Harmire Road, Barnard Castle, DL12 8DJ. Tel: (01833) 630999.

As well as the team members, they are always looking for associate members to help behind the scenes, particularly with fund raising.