Search and Operational Plans

One cannot deny that the devastating flooding from hurricane Matthew in the eastern part of North Carolina and the disastrous forest fires in the western end of the state in fall 2016 were “ones for the books.”


Classroom and field training exercises practiced for utilization in real rescues. Our training prepares us to perform rescues and is our starting point.

These events won’t be forgotten for many years to come, and will likewise be studied for rescue response for years. These events become standards to which response strategies and preparedness are measured and evaluated.

It is generally accepted that large disasters like these test the very core of preparedness and incident management. When incidents of these scales occur, all resources are stretched to the maximum. Lives are changed forever. Fire, rescue and EMS personnel, paid and volunteer, are pushed to the limit, both by circumstances of the situation and by the desire to be of service to our communities at a time of great peril. It’s what rescue is, and who we are as rescuers.

Recently I was asked to prepare the formal search and rescue plan for the state forest where I work. In working on this document, it readily became apparent that one couldn’t possibly prepare for every potential rescue situation. I got to thinking about the many times I have written in these articles that we must be training our people to think; that is, to accurately assess any rescue scene and come up with the proper and safe methods to perform the rescue.

I think most of you will agree that knowledge, skills and abilities, many learned in class and in ground schools, will be the groundwork any of us will take to any rescue call. We have to start somewhere, and what we learn in all forms of training form the basis of how we perform a rescue. But the REAL challenge comes when we have to apply learned skills in an environment vastly different than when we trained on it.

Large or complex rescues can pull specialty resources from many varied agencies. Operational Plans should have available resources specified.

Search and Rescue (SAR) Operational Plans are based upon many factors: location, circumstances, terrain, field conditions, weather, tools and equipment available, time of day, personnel available and levels of training, access to the rescue site and many more influencing factors. SAR Operational Plans, or SAROPs, are just that: plans. They are a guide as to how we should most likely respond to and manage rescues, commonly based upon “standard and expected conditions” and the factors mentioned above. A basic response plan is always a good thing, as it can direct our resources and thinking towards a successful solution, resulting in a safe rescue.

But what happens when we are faced with an extremely challenging, technical rescue or are overwhelmed by a massive rescue scene? Or when we are faced with a rescue we may have never done before? We must first rely upon our training, a clear and accurate scene assessment, a honest understanding of our rescue capabilities, knowledge of ALL of our equipment and how to use it — and experience. Rescues like I have described here are the ones that often require that “thinking outside the training box” approach.

Skills are skills, and equipment is equipment. How you use your knowledge and how you use your equipment, well, that’s the secret to how you perform the rescue. Perhaps the better way to look at this is how to adapt all of your training, knowledge and equipment towards accomplishing a successful, safe rescue. This is the challenge: how can I take whatever “tools I have in the rescue toolbox,” and make this work safely? Call it “mixing and matching” all the tools to get the job done. This, and this alone, is what I have preached for years in rescue: rescuers taught to think and then given the freedom and authority to do so will get the job done.

Using training rescues to adapt to potential rescues under adverse, dangerous conditions.

The SAROPs will be your guide, directing your initial actions towards a plan, and this plan may be far different than anything you have had to use in the past. But if it is safe, and operates within the technical limitations of your equipment, and is based upon sound judgment and skills, then do it. SAROPs direct actions that should achieve a specific goal or outcome, but how you get to that final goal is based upon you, your team, your application of knowledge and equipment.

Search and Rescue Operation Plans are designed to cover the necessary actions and procedures rescuers should follow under most anticipated rescues. SAROPs contain standard operating guidelines that direct actions relative to the type rescue presented. When rescuers are presented with unusual or infrequent complex rescues, the plans provide a “flow of actions” that help direct rescue activities. This includes everything from initial dispatch, response, ICS management, staging, scene assessment, mutual aid assistance, the rescue itself, victim evacuation and overall critique of the operation. In the Forest Service we call these AARs or After Action Reviews. AARs allow for a free discussion by ALL participants of things that went well and things that could be improved. AARs, when we learn from them, make us better rescuers and they strengthen our SAROPs.

We all gain a most valuable thing from our rescues: experience. Experience imparts wisdom — some call it common sense — and wisdom, combined with all of your hard-earned training, makes rescuers.

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

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