While listening to a CNN correspondent reporting ‘live’ (as opposed to the footage repeated morning, noon and night ad nauseum over subsequent days) during the early stages of the recovery operation in northern Japan immediately after the earthquake and subsequent devastating tsunami, a helicopter passed overhead which drew the camera’s unblinking eye. “That’s what is really needed right now,” said the reporter, “lots of helicopters to get to these people quickly and bring help.”
This call for more helicopters is not new, and Japan is one of those countries that already has its own good range of different types with professionally trained crews. But the situation remains that every time there is an emergency of the kind where transportation routes are cut, either through earthquake, flooding or other natural disaster, there is still no internationally recognized blueprint or database which can be dusted off and used to compare the type and scale of the problem, against those types of helicopters that would be most suitable for the job—and then get them quickly to wherever in the world they need to go.
While it might be unfair or impracticable to rely on the same military forces or civilian operators to be called out time and again on a global scale, potentially putting their crews and assets into harm’s way on each occasion, surely there could be a method of creating a worldwide database that would allow a managing agency to contact responders who were chosen from the region being affected. This would not be instead of other forces of course, such as those of the U.S. already positioned around the world on other duties, but it would give flexibility and even perhaps financial economies that would be of benefit when the financial cost of the operation was finally realized.
From establishing such a database of first responders, it may then also be possible to encourage training programs so that each of the regions would benefit from a higher level of proficiency among their teams over time. Perhaps ISO containers filled with rescue equipment could also be located around the world.
Leaving aside the U.S., which has its own Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which responded after Hurricane Katrina violently swept through New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico states in August 2005, there is no internationally recognized body yet established that is specifically looking at how rotary assets could be used in certain situations.
When is a Boeing CH-47 Chinook best utilized—or perhaps a Mil Mi-26? Certainly both can lift large numbers of people and cargo into and out of disaster operations. But are there other specialist aircraft too? How about helicopters such as the Kaman K-MAX that can conduct lifting operations in small spaces? How about aircraft equipment with forward looking infrared (FLIR), or those with hoists/winches for vertical extraction, or firefighting helicopters, or others already equipped with hooks for underslung loads?
And then there are the crews. Where are those skilled in search and rescue techniques, parajumpers who can independently enter and area and bring order to chaos, or those aircraft that are already, or can quickly be, fitted out as emergency rescue helicopters that can take stretchers? Not all these specialties are in the military domain, and those outside in the civil world should have their part to play too.
But there needs to be one ‘go-to’ organization which is internationally recognized, apolitical, has immediate access to scenario plans and a database of aircraft/crew capabilities—and those agencies who are potentially willing to release their aircraft for any global emergency. Naturally this would have to be on an availability basis, but there is no reason why a list of ‘fast-call’ responders could not be drawn up.
While I am not aware that such a database actually exists—and would be very happy if it does (someone please write in and tell me), it does seem to be such a logical ‘no brainer’ thing to do. If we can get an International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) together to fight a war in Afghanistan, surely we can mobilize an International Helicopter Emergency Force (or whatever) with the task of save lives when called upon—but I guess the motivation is very different.
And the bottom line, as ever, is the question of how to divide the cost? Perhaps part of it should come from worldwide donations to whichever emergency is occurring? While recovery is important over the long term, so is immediate response.