A PURPOSE-built rescue centre that will meet demands well into the 21st century has been handed over to its members.

The Upper Teesdale and Weardale fell rescue association was formed more than 30 years ago, following a fatal accident. Three Teesdale men - Tom Buffey, Denis Coggins and Don Robinson - decided that a rescue team should be formed in an effort to avoid future tragedies.

In 1991 the group became Teesdale and Weardale search and rescue team, which over the years has responded not only to being called out on the fells and hills but has also been increasingly involved in searching lowland and urban areas.

In 1999, this led to the launch of a three-year action plan to obtain funds to build a new centre in Barnard Castle. Impetus was also given to the appeal by the fact that the lease on its Birch Road premises ran out in 2001. Soon after the launch the group was given a great boost when it was offered a lease on some land behind the police station in Harmire Road.

An application for lottery funding was successful, with various events organised by the team to raise a shortfall. The team also received donations from trusts, businesses and individuals, all helping towards the final cost of £155,000.

Team leader Mr Alan Best said members were delighted with the new centre. He had tried to keep everyone involved and all had had input into the ideas and design. They had visited other bases and used their best points while avoiding their worst ones. "Everybody in the team is happy with what we have got. Our suggestion box received only one comment for change - that we have a welcome mat!"

Team member and press officer Mr Steve Owers showed a D&S Times reporter around the new building. There is a control room, two meeting-training rooms with equipment sponsored by Seaton Healthcare, a rope rescue training wall, washing facilities, drying room, storage space and space to store the team vehicles. A climbing wall can be used for abseiling, while a "quad pod" can be used to simulate rescues from narrow shafts such as old mine workings, which are prevalent in Teesdale.

The centre fits in with the growing work of the team as members respond to incidents all over County Durham and the High Pennines, towards Cumbria. There are now more than 30 unpaid voluntary team members, spread throughout the county, which are on the A-list as having at least one year's training. They also have specialists including canoe and crag groups. As well as the practical side of getting people to safety, they are increasingly involved in a lot of preparation work before a search starts, with access to a character profiling database that can give valuable information about where to begin searching in a logical way.

Mr Best sees the role of the new centre as having two aims: to rescue people and to educate them. Therefore groups such as the scouts and those taking part in the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme will use the building.

Schools in particular will benefit. "They tend to take on projects to raise their own awareness while raising money for us," said team member Lesley Sutherland. "This gives us an opportunity to give something back."

Durham police called out the team on Sunday to search the River Wear at Durham City for a young man missing for a number of weeks. Because of the situation with foot-and-mouth disease, the team had to work closely with police, MAFF and local landowners to minimise any risk, resulting in the use of the canoe group which discovered a body in the river some half a mile downstream. Divers from Northumbria police recovered the body.

An open day planned for April 1 has been cancelled due to the foot-and-mouth outbreak. Mr Best said the team felt it wrong to bring large numbers of people to the countryside unnecessarily. "The vast majority of farmers in the dales have always freely and willingly allowed the team to use their land for training. We now wish to support them in their efforts to eradicate foot-and- mouth."

A day of displays and demonstrations will be held later in the year to thank everyone who has given to the appeal. Meanwhile a small official opening is planned for March 31, with suitable precautions taken against the spread of foot-and-mouth