Military, Public Service, Regulatory

Search and Rescue: Hand in Hand

By Veronica Magan | November 1, 2006
Send Feedback | @veronicamagan


Soon after the first helicopter rescue missions in 1944, SAR grew into a bastion of dedicated specialists using honed flying skills and customized tools to return to safety downed airmen, marooned sailors, and stranded citizens. SAR crews gained reputations as competitive bunches who refused to admit defeat. They developed their own territories and specialties and frowned on interlopers in either-unless an emergency's scope warranted "collaboration."

Like other endeavors in aviation, SAR operations slowly have come to accept less aggressive and independent initiatives such as crew-resource, risk and safety management that tempered the thrill of missions but improved the likelihood that all in the crew would return alive and unharmed. Such initiatives took hold within individual organizations, but those outfits often continued to work on their own-even occasionally at odds.


Early September 2005 raised the prospect that that might change. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina's devastation of the southern portions of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, rescue crews of every ilk and agency were thrust together for days on end. In single 24-hr periods, individual aircraft crews performed a career's worth of hoists and rescues. Helicopters in many cases were the only links to civilization and survival for thousands of citizens stranded on rooftops or holed up in cutoff refineries and beachfront communities. The disparate crews were forced to find ways to work together, and discovered that was far more difficult than any rescue professional should accept.

At a time when Western military services are realizing the benefits of "jointness" in operations, training, and aircraft equipage through combat and peacekeeping operations around the world, civil, military and commercial helicopter operators were confronted with the reality that domestic disasters-natural and man-made-can be of a scope that can only be met by large-scale collaboration.

Coast Guard HelicopterThat such civilian "jointness" is possible only through extensive and detailed planning and practice was made evident by the ad hoc rotorcraft response to Katrina, which succeeded despite the lack of planning and pre-disaster coordination. But that was made evident as well, or so it seemed, by the extent of the devastation that followed the Indian Ocean tsunami nine months before Katrina, and by the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, and by numerous smaller disasters in between and since.

It is unlikely that the lack of planning and coordination in civil SAR will be corrected soon. After all, it has taken 20 years since the Goldwater-Nichols Act "mandated" collaboration among the military services for the military to begin to embrace joint operations.

Still, there is some movement in that direction.

The U.S. Coast Guard's operations in Katrina's wake proved the value of some standardization of rescue operations. The service acted quickly to reposition aircraft and crews to aid in rescue and relief operations. That threw together aircraft commanders, co-pilots, flight mechanics and rescue swimmers from all over the United States, many of whom flew together for the first time when launched on a post-Katrina mission. Standardization of training and procedures allowed them to work effectively.

The successful combination and performance of such crews "was repeated countless times in all of our aircraft types day in and day out during Katrina," said Coast Guard Capt. Dave Callahan, "to the tune of over 12,000 lives saved by aviation forces, and over 30,000 saved by all Coast Guard forces." Callahan commands the service's Aviation Training Center in Mobile, Ala., a major base of operations for post-Katrina missions.

Coast Guard helicopters performed thousands of rescue hoists during Katrina operations, without a single major hoist mishap on any Coast Guard aircraft. "When you consider the incredibly difficult conditions faced by these crews, along with the simple fact that hoist operations have inherent risks," Callahan said, "I believe this is a testament to the effectiveness of our training and standardization programs." That is a main reason why the service continues to emphasize "bread and butter" SAR skills like hoisting and rescue-swimmer operations in its training and standardization programs.

The Coast Guard is, of course, but one agency. The Helicopter Assn. International hopes to provide a building block for multi-agency collaboration through its newly launched First Responder database. This is intended as a clearinghouse for government officials of data on commercial helicopters equipped and ready to supplement government rescue forces in an emergency. Its goal is to cut through the red tape that kept fueled, staffed commercial helicopters on the ground throughout the United States for days as Katrina victims in New Orleans clamored for vertical-lift support.

For other examples, those in the United States can always turn to the United Kingdom, which for decades has supplemented its SAR capabilities with a commercial operator under contract. The U.K. Maritime and Coastguard Agency aims to go well beyond that in the next decade, turning over to a commercial operator responsibility for a SAR fleet that will be staffed jointly by civilian, Royal Air Force and Royal Navy crews.

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