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Integrating Aerial SAR Responders

By By Andrew Drwiega, International Bureau Chief | September 1, 2013
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UK Royal Air Force SAR Sea King.

Annually involved with more than 4,000 calls for help then backing that up with the deployment of assistance on average around 2,500 times, the United Kingdom’s Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Center (ARCC) and conjoined Cospas-Sarsat Mission Control Center (UKMCC) support not only UK requests for aeronautical emergency help, but also monitor distress calls transmitted globally.

Wing Commander Jonathan Heald, commanding officer of ARCC, says that the unit responds to around three major incidents per year that typically require multiple helicopters. However, ARCC has always got to be prepared for disaster level events on the scale of the Piper Alpha oil production disaster in 1988 (where 167 people lost their lives), the Morecambe Bay tidal tragedy in 2004 (21 Chinese cockle pickers drowned) as well as other major civil emergencies such as the Boscastle flash flood in 2004 or the Cockermouth flooding in 2009 where many people had to be rescued by winching them to safety.


The Ministry of Defence (MoD) operates the ARCC which is based at Kinloss Barracks (ex-RAF Kinloss), a facility that also used to be the Royal Air Force’s main operating base for Nimrod Maritime Patrol Aircraft that gave the UK its long-range fixed wing search and patrol capability. Unfortunately the modernized version of these aircraft was cut as a result of the 2010 Strategic Defense and Security Review (SDSR) and there is no replacement. The long-serving, ubiquitous RAF Hercules, together with E3D Sentry aircraft and counter-pollution aircraft operated by HM Coastguard, are now the most likely potential standby fixed-wing SAR assets if a long-range maritime emergency develops. The ARCC now shares Kinloss with the well-equipped Lossiemouth Mountain Rescue Team and 39 Army Engineer Regiment.

Personal locator beacon
(PLB) in use.

While the ARCC mainly tasks and coordinates the launch of MoD and MCA helicopters and can request support from other aircraft, it mostly operates in support of police forces, which have overall authority for SAR coordination over land, HM Coastguard in the maritime and also ambulance services.

Heald showed statistics that revealed around 45 percent of calls to the ARCC are generated by the MCA, with 25 percent from ambulance services and 22 percent from the police. However more than 50 percent of SAR emergencies during this year were over land and typically many of the offshore rescues occur within four miles of the coastline. As well as meeting national obligations to provide SAR services,, he likened the ARCC’s ability to call on military helicopters as a “shock absorber” in support of the “blue light” emergency services.

There is always an ambition to further improve, explains Heald, who is the MoD representative on the UK SAR Operators Group and the UK aeronautical member of the ICAO/ IMO joint working group. He also co-chairs the UK Emergency Air Responders (EAR) Working Group, which is tasked by the UK SAR Strategic Committee. The Group is recommending ways to improve cooperation amongst all UK emergency air response operators. Heald considers that improving communications, decision-making and cooperation amongst all emergency response aircraft would be a good thing and another step on the path to improving aircraft coordination so that different emergency services don’t send helicopters independently to the same incident.

Supporting Beacon Alerts

Cospas-Sarsat is an international organization that uses satellites to identify radio distress beacons on 406 MHz that have been activated anywhere around the globe – on ships, aircraft or by individual owners. The UKMCC receives these warnings from Local User Terminals (LUT) that, in the UK, are operated by the Maritime Coastguard Agency (MCA). However, the UKMCC can also receive or hand on alerts from other MCCs worldwide, which are then passed on to the appropriate RCC for the region. According to figures from Cospas-Sarsat, 49 percent of emergencies were maritime, 28 percent land related and 23 percent aviation.

Rescue operations from
the flooding of
Cockermouth, England
in 2009.

While locator beacons are mandatory on commercial shipping and aircraft, one of the biggest growth sectors is in the personal beacon market, says Cpl. Jim Leckie, one of the specialists who operate within the UKMCC. He said that there are now around 9,000 personal locator beacons registered in the United Kingdom alone.

One of the growing problems with personal beacons and those that are not commercially operated is that they are frequently either bought and not registered by the owner, or not re-registered under the name of the new owner if they are sold on. Currently Leckie estimates this to be the case with more than 50 percent of personal beacons. “As we have to identify each beacon alert to type of vessel or aircraft, and owner, this can take vital time,” Leckie explains. Over 90 percent of his job involves following up alerts to gain more information relating to the beacon. More often than not he will also use the Internet as a means of identifying vessels and aircraft. “In the majority of cases alerts can be traced to causes such as the unit getting too wet when located in a boat at sea, or maintenance issues in aircraft or even just ‘finger trouble’ for personal beacons where the alarm is pressed by mistake,” said Leckie.

The UKMCC currently uses the older EMS Global Resource Management OCC-200 operations control console to processes distress beacon information, then allows the data to be distributed to RCCs. The manufacturer has indicated that it will soon be unable to support the OCC, therefore, consideration is now being given to ensuring that the UKMCC has a suitable operating system in the future.

Future Planning

An upgrade is likely to be part of an interim requirement to bring the ARCC’s Rescue Coordination System up-to-date. MoD’s defense equipment and support (DE&S) department is seeking a five-year system upgrade (with options for up to five further years) “for the replacement and ongoing support of the rescue control system” which will be classified as out-of-service by the end of 2013. DE&S states they would like the system, which would comprise hardware, software and communications equipment, to be based on a COTS/MOTS solution if possible.

DE&S has valued the contract at £8 million and determined that the system should be available 24/7 year-round, and be able to cope with 5,000 calls per year, a 25 percent increase over what it already receives.

Eurocopter has delivered five EC135s to
THK Gokcen for medical ops in Turkey.

If the ARCC does relocate to the MCA National Maritime Operations Center (NMOC) in Fareham, Hampshire around 2017 as has been suggested by Vice Admiral Alan Massey, its chief executive earlier this year, then it will need to be equipped with a suitable coordination system. The DE&S request for contract would appear to confirm this closer integration: “After December 2018 the capability is likely to be subsumed into a system provided and supported by the Maritime Coastguard Agency, but the rescue control system should be capable of remaining supportable beyond that date in case of delays to the merge program. The ARCC may also relocate from Kinloss Barracks within the life of the support contract and the Rescue Coordination System functionality would be required to be relocated with it. It is likely that any such re-location would be phased and that the Rescue Control System would need to operate at both locations for a 12-month overlap.” As already mentioned, this includes the need to upgrade the MCC system.

Graphical illustration showing how COSPAS-SARSAT works.

Emergency Air Response Working Group

Organizations represented within the working group include:

• Association of Air Ambulances

• Association of Ambulance Chief Executives

• Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO)

• British Association of Immediate Care (BASICS)

• Care Quality Commission (CQC)•Chief Fire Officers Association (CFOA)

• Civil Aviation Authority• Department of Health (DH)

• Department for Transport (DfT)

• HM Coastguard (HMCG)

• MoD – Air Rescue Coordination Centre – Co Chair

• NHS Commissioners

• NHS – Resilience & Preparedness Implementation

• National Police Air Service

• Scottish Ambulance Service

• Assistance also from the Association of Chief Police Officers Scotland

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