Using aviation as search and rescue support

CarolinaFireJournal - By Bob Twomey
By Bob Twomey
04/24/2015 -

Last fall I was down at my hangar doing general maintenance when an officer from another fire-rescue agency called to discuss using aviation in rescue support roles. A couple years ago he had taken the class “Helicopter Use in Search and Rescue Support” offered through the Western North Carolina Fire and Rescue College and McDowell Fire and Rescue College.


Locating fall victim on large rock face.

Since this class he had been working through his local department to see if the general aviation community could offer or supply aerial assistance to them during lost person searches, flood searches and damage assessment, aerial scene management, personnel transport and so forth.

In this class, there was detailed discussion about how the general aviation community — the non-governmental private and commercial pilots — could be of assistance to local rescue agencies during emergencies, if they were willing to be of service in such circumstances. He had listened intently and subsequently has been attempting to secure the assistance of local pilots in his county.

There are some things to think about when a department is contemplating using general aviation for assistance in search and rescue (SAR) work. Some questions to ask:

  • Does our department or agency perform the type rescue work where aerial assistance would be of any benefit, either to us as rescuers, or to the victim?
  • Does our terrain lend itself to a reasonable expectation that aviation assistance would be of assistance in SAR work?
  • Is the local terrain so rough that aerial searching would save a lot of time and man-hours in a SAR event?
  • Does our department have SAR responsibilities in remote areas of our jurisdiction?
  • Are state sponsored aviation resources readily available when the true need arises?
  • Have we had SARs in the past where aerial resources could have made a difference?
  • Would our department be willing, and able, to learn all the additional things we would have to know in order to work with an aircrew that is assisting us?
  • Do we have an airport in/around our service area?
  • Are there any pilots available to even contact to see if they would be interested in helping us?
  • What kind of resources are we needing? Fixed-wing aircraft? Helicopter?

As you can see — many things to think about!

Castle Rock and rough terrain where aviation resource could save victim search time.

So why in the world would a department even want to consider aviation resources? Several reasons: risk-benefit to rescuers and victim(s), SAR efficiency, the financial logistics of an extended SAR event, possibly the reduced availability of qualified volunteers in your department and/or lower man-hours available, unavailable mutual aid, just to name a few.

In any rescue, Incident Command should always be assessing the risks to rescuers relative to the tasks at hand and how they are to be performed. You know your rescuers, their capabilities and limitations, so in any given rescue, what will be the risks to your rescuers in the performance of their duties? How will terrain and field conditions effect how the rescue is to commence? What is the urgency of a “find” in your search?

If your department routinely conducts land searches in rugged terrain, for example, a SAR commander must evaluate high probability areas (POAs), ingress to these areas, resources needed to effectively search the areas, and calculate the probability of success (POS) of finding the victim(s) in the least amount of time. If you remember, POS = POA x POD, or, the probability of success — a “find” in minimal time — equals the probability that the victim is in that area times that victim’s probability of detection. So, what if you could search an area from the air with a reasonable probability of detecting the victim. Wouldn’t that be of benefit to your SAR plan? Or, what if you receive a call that a rock climber is stranded and possibly injured on a large rock face on an unusually warm Sunday afternoon in January, but the temperature is expected to drop to 20 degrees that night. How useful to you would it be for a pilot to “fly the rock” and locate your victim?

A local pilot and small helicopter.

The pilot could radio the victim’s location to the CP, likely saving you hours of time trying to locate the victim on a large rock face before you are even able to begin the rescue phase. The pilot could likely guide a ground team to a victim, again saving time. It should be remembered that this time might be time the victim can ill afford to loose.

A flood has wreaked havoc in your community and a car has been driven into the floodwater. The driver thought it wasn’t so deep that the car couldn’t make it through, but then the engine floods and the current sweeps the car off the roadway. The driver attempts to escape the sinking car, only to be swept away and is now missing. How useful could a local helicopter be to you to search the river and floodplain for this victim, in a fraction of the amount of time needed by even highly trained swift water rescue techs? If located, the victim’s location could be relayed to command, and even a boat rescue team could be guided to the victim’s location. The list of scenarios where aviation assistance could be of benefit to you is almost endless.

Being the owner and operator of a helicopter, and having been in rescue work for the last 41 years and aviation operations for the last 20 years, to me it is almost unconscionable as to why any department would NOT want to utilize local aviation resources, should they be available, qualified, and offered for assistance. Now, not every pilot is willing to assist in search and rescue support, but you don’t know that until you ask him or her. Some pilots have past military experience and now just fly for pleasure. Others just fly for the sheer adventure of it. But if they were asked if they could assist locally in searches, and train accordingly with your department, they just might readily agree. Normally, who doesn’t want to help their local volunteer fire department or rescue squad?

It is likely that some departmental officers reading this article are now getting a hernia over insurance and liability concerns. Possibly, some are thinking “we cannot chance getting assistance from a pilot who is not a rescuer or member of our local emergency services.” To this I say: “you just answered your own question.” Make the pilot some type of member of your department!

“But we have never done that before.” To this I say: “whose fault is that?”

“But our charter doesn’t allow for introduction or use of aviation resources in our jobs.” To this I say: “that’s what boards of directors, pens and computers are for — to make things legal and above board — so they can happen.” Look for ways to make things happen, and not reasons, or excuses, for why they can’t. ANYTHING is possible if you work out ways to make it happen, and you value the assistance enough.

Rescuers who have “been around the block a few times” realize the occasional value of outside resources under certain circumstances. In many of my past articles, I have talked about “thinking outside the box” when faced with unusual circumstances. This does NOT mean tossing all training, SOGs and protocols out the window. But it does mean a proactive approach as to how different SAR scenarios could be handled — with forethought and planning. Through proper preplanning, discussion, and well-understood procedures, an aviation resource can become one of your most powerful “tools in the toolbox” when faced with SAR situations.

State aviation resources are available to your department under specific circumstances, through the North Carolina Department of Emergency Management. These are tremendous resources for you, such as the North Carolina National Guard, North Carolina Highway Patrol, and possibly others, depending upon the situation. However, in a regional disaster, for instance, you may have to wait your turn to get this assistance, based upon other more urgent situations occurring at the same time. But, if you have a local, dependable, qualified general aviation resource with whom you have worked and trained with before the need arises, with whom any “legaleze” has been properly handled beforehand, would this not give you a tremendous advantage in performance of your SARs?

Perhaps the next issue would be what type of aircraft would provide the most useful, efficient assistance to you, given your terrain and common SAR responses?

Much of that would depend upon the type of terrain within your service area — flat, hilly, rugged mountains, steep slopes, rock outcrops, etc. It would depend in large part on the field conditions also, such as open, sparsely vegetated terrain, water bodies — lakes, rivers, ponds, waterfalls — heavily forested terrain and grasslands. Other issues would be land elevation, common wind patterns, average long-term victim detectability from past searches in your area, and the like.

Small fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters both have their advantages and disadvantages. The usual size of your average search areas can sometimes dictate which type aircraft would serve your needs more efficiently. Air speed of the aircraft is generally not a deciding issue; however, in land searches, slower airspeeds allow for more “scan time” per unit of ground covered. In search management, this translates into a higher probability of victim detection, because of extended visual “sight time” over that unit of land. So, from long experience with many searches, I would have to say that a helicopter would, in most circumstances, provide you greater efficiency.

Helicopters generally can safely fly lower and slower over the search area because of their unique mechanical abilities. They can hover in a fixed position, allowing for a detailed scan of the terrain, especially with the aid of gyro-stabilized binoculars or thermal imagers. Should an object of interest be spotted from a higher altitude, the helicopter can, under calculated parameters, be piloted in for a closer view. Fixed-wing aircraft usually have longer flight duration for extended search operations, and are usually less expensive to fly and operate compared to helicopters.

So, you can see that both general aviation resources have their pros and cons. If you are able to secure a local pilot and aircraft, I think that, for the most part, you are ahead of the game for SAR operations. You added a powerful SAR tool to your operational capabilities. But you must remember that it is all about communications, understanding, and training.

One of the most dangerous things your department could do is fly a search with a pilot you don’t know, of whom you don’t know their capabilities and limitations, and with whom you have never trained. This is NOT the way to proceed with a local general aviation resource. If you are lucky enough to secure the services of a wealthy aircraft owner who will donate his or her time without cost, go for it. But from my experience around pilots, most of them are just average folks like us, who just happen to have a very expensive passion: flying. You should consider at least paying for fuel used in the search. All FAA certified pilots know what they can charge based upon their pilot ratings and certification(s). Be willing to help them. It isn’t cheap to own and operate an aircraft, especially a helicopter.

I hope this article has spurred your thinking about available, local aviation resources. Properly secured and managed, this resource can greatly enhance your SAR response capabilities.

Bob Twomey is the founder and past chief of the North Carolina High Level Extraction Rescue Team, Inc. a volunteer helicopter search and rescue support team based in Transylvania County, North Carolina. He is the senior helicopter pilot for Wolf Tree Aviation, LLC operating out of Transylvania Community Airport. He has served in numerous officer and training positions in the Transylvania County Rescue Squad. He has been active in SAR for 41 years. He can be reached at 828-884-7174 or [email protected].
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