Military, Training

Managing Multi-Agency Air Support

By By Andrew Drwiega | October 1, 2010

A recent multi-agency disaster exercise, a simulated earthquake in Liverpool in the United Kingdom, has also acted as an opportunity to confirm a newly formed concept called the Combined Silver Air Cell (CSAC).

The recently held Exercise Orion proved the concept and CSAC training and Tactics, Techniques and Procedures (TTPs) are now being added to national standard operating procedures and will be taught on the Multi Agency Gold Incident Commanders course.

A Gold-Silver-Bronze command structure is used by the UK’s emergency services to establish a hierarchical framework for the command and control of major incidents and disasters (basically translating into strategic, tactical and operational commands). The Gold commander will be the lead emergency service operator who is located away from the incident at a headquarters.


The architects behind the construct of the CSAC were the military’s Search and Rescue (SAR) Force Headquarters and the National Police Improvement Agency. The Royal Air Force’s SAR Chief of Staff, Wing Commander Peter Lloyd, points out why those at the top of the command and control decision-making process require such as organization: “Most commanders at Gold and Silver level will have had little exposure to the quantity and capability of air support that is going to come charging over the horizon.”

Lloyd also provides a definition of CSAC and when it will be needed: “CSAC is a collection of air aware individuals who know the capabilities of their own helicopters and who have the authority to task their own helicopters... CSAC is likely to be required when three or more air assets are operating at the same incident in close proximity. But key to success is the early request by the Gold commander for the CSAC.”

The general realization among UK emergency services that an on-site temporary organization was required to control air assets belonging to, but independently controlled by, several emergency service operators, became clear during the flooding in Gloucester in 2007. Eventually 114 people were rescued, but dedicated SAR Liaison Team found their job increasingly complex as other emergency and civilian helicopters began arriving. They were still being tasked by their own control centers which led to inappropriate and duplicate tasking.

The matter of quickly identifying aircraft capabilities and ensuring that the right asset is tasked to each specific location is crucial, especially when lives are at risk and there are many casualties to recover. Having the right communications systems in the aircraft is key to command and control.

Exercise Orion was coordinated by the UK’s Fire and brought together 100 firefighters, 23 fire tenders, five urban search and rescue teams and four helicopters. RAF’s SAR Sea King Mk3, the Merseyside Police Air Support Unit and the North West Air Ambulance helicopter, both of which operate Eurocopter EC135s, were involved. The exercise also saw the participation of a military Chinook CH-47 heavy lift helicopter, tasked by the Ministry of Defense’s Joint Helicopter Command (JHC). These four aircraft provided a good resource pool of rotary lift which would be invaluable when tasked in the right way. However, the heavy lift Chinook tasked to lift a party of four people would be wrong if there was another site where 30 people needed immediate transit to hospital. The Sea King and its crew are trained and used to rescue isolated people trapped in hazardous conditions. The police helicopter, with a top speed of 170 knots and equipped with state-of-the-art thermal imaging systems and broadcast quality TV camera, would be excellent as a situational awareness asset that could provide real-time situation update images into a command center.

Communications too can cause problems. The three smaller aircraft were soon brought to a central Tetra Airwave channel by CSAC. The Chinook was not equipped to do so and therefore the role of the JHC’s liaison officer within the CSAC was key.

The CSAC would have also addressed the need to declare a military danger area and civilian flight restrictions would have been established. “Other equipment within the cell allowed for real-time tracking of assets, electronic logging of tasking and down-linking of police images,” says Lloyd. “Generic air tasks were requested by Silver and the CSAC would discuss and agree on the most appropriate asset. The individual LO would then formally task his own helicopter,” he added.

The rise in numbers of emergency service aircraft—both rotary and fixed-wing—over the last couple of decades means that a CSAC is an indispensible part of the command and control for a major disaster operation requiring numerous aircraft.

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