July - August 2005
Crew Dynamics in Flight
R.A.V.E.N. is Always Watching
Responsibilities of the Aviation Safety Officer
More than just SAR! Search, Locate, Communicate, Plan & Rescue
Crew Dynamics in Flight
By Subhash "Bosh" Wagh
Air First Consulting, Inc.
We as humans are the most flexible, adaptable, and capable pieces of equipment on any flight deck. Unfortunately, we are also the most prone to failure when we do not operate within our capabilities or recognize our limitations.
New technologies are constantly being developed that enhance the reliability and safety in aircraft today. Unfortunately, while aviation safety has made tremendous gains as a result of these technologies, it is the human factor that is still responsible for a vast majority of accidents.
Law enforcement aviation is a complex, dynamic and high-risk occupation, and as such, we have to continually work to maintain our margins of safety. Crews often face human factors issues that are specific to the law enforcement aviation environment. Air-to-ground coordination, ground threats, and crew dynamics are topics that are not commonly dealt with in general or commercial aviation. At the same time, crews are still subject to the human limitations that all aviators deal with such as stress and fatigue, situational awareness and effective communication.
Human factors, as an area of study, deals with the capabilities and limitations humans have when interacting with any given system. One of the best methods we have for maintaining our margin of safety is to be aware of our own personal capabilities and limitations. As such, let’s look at a few of the issues that air crews may face on any given day.
The aviation environment, as a whole, does not lend itself to effective communication. Studies have suggested that approximately 55 percent of our communication is done through body language. Unfortunately, strapped into a flightdeck, wearing a helmet and glasses, we lose a significant amount of our ability to communicate through body language. Our verbal communication is hampered by the high noise level associated with flight operations. Additionally, we are communicating over two, sometimes three, different radios, translating between aviation and law enforcement languages, all while trying to communicate with our fellow crewmember(s).
To counter the high probability of miscommunication, we have to insure that our message is received and understood. We can do this by continually questioning anything we are unsure about. Avoid using non-standard phraseology and slang terms. Repeating information is another technique to insure the message is heard. Brief with your crew before you ever leave the ground; this can clear up any issues before they become misunderstandings. Always receive a response to your communication, do not assume the other person has heard or understood your message.
Would you fly an aircraft that had stress cracks in the airframe? Of course not! So why do we fly when our personal stress levels make us unsafe? While a little bit of stress can be a good thing, when overdone, it can cause us problems both physically and/or mentally. Physically, long term stress can cause, or contribute to, high blood pressure, digestive tract problems, cardiovascular problems and reduce our immunity to illness. Stress has been known to cause a host of psychological issues such as short temper, slowed responses, despair, depression, mood swings and other anti-social or self-destructive behaviors.
Use whatever works for you to reduce your stress level. A word of warning, alcohol is a dangerous method for reducing stress; it leads to too many other issues. While exercise is the number one way of reducing stress, different things work for different people. Additionally, if you experience a life event that creates an overwhelming amount of stress, seek help. The death of a loved one, a divorce, or in any life event where you are unable to reduce your feelings of stress, seek professional assistance. You can only handle so much in your life. Should you come to work stressed out, a minor event may become major.
Fatigue is becoming recognized as one of the greatest human factors limitations. There are many studies, from NASA and the NTSB in particular, that illustrate the need for rest. Typically, we require at least eight hours of sleep a day. Unfortunately, the world of law enforcement aviation is based on a 24/7 schedule. Differential shifts, rotating days off, court appearances, off-duty gigs and your personal life are all competing for a limited number of hours in any given day. All too often, we fit everything in by reducing our hours of rest.
A few of the effects that fatigue has been known to cause are: despair, depressed immune system, short temper, unusual mistakes, apathy, poor decision making, mental depression, slowed response time and anti-social behavior.
Sound familiar? Have you ever been so tired that you noticed some of these effects? Have you ever flown fatigued? Fatigue is insidious in that by the time you realize that you are tired, you are already subject to fatigue’s effects.
You cannot "gut it out" when you are tired. How many of us have worked traffic accidents where the driver had fallen asleep at the wheel? As pilots, we are no different. Flight crews have been observed falling asleep at the controls on short final! Your body will get the rest it needs with or without your consent. The only way to fight fatigue is to get enough rest. Give yourself the rest you need so that you can stay safe.
As a rookie patrolman, I received an invaluable lesson on situational awareness. My training officer had me stop our car and asked me what I would do if he were suddenly shot. Among other things, I told him that I would immediately call for backup and a medical response. He asked to what location I would have everyone respond.
"Well right here", I said.
"And where is that?"
"Uhhmm, about two blocks south of 12th."
"Are you sure?"
"Why don’t you get out of the car, walk down to the corner and read that street sign. When you find out where we are, come back and let me know."
I will never forget that lesson. It was on the midnight shift pouring down rain, and freezing cold. I had not kept up with my situational awareness, my understanding of where I was and what was going on around me.
As aviators, a lack of situational awareness will get us killed. Maintaining our situational awareness is easier said than done. Any distraction, or lack of attention, degrades our awareness of what we are doing and what is going on around us. Continually question what is happening around you, monitor the instruments, the weather, emergency landing locations, your crew, everything. Aviation is unforgiving; we cannot afford to lose situational awareness in such an environment. We no longer have the ability to simply walk to the corner and find out where we are.
Law Enforcement Issues
So far, we have discussed issues that could be applicable to all aviators. Now we will look at some human factors related issues that are specific to law enforcement air crews.\
Coordinating with ground personnel is an everyday event for airborne law enforcement crews. The observer is trying to coordinate with a pilot and ground personnel, the pilot is communicating with ATC, other traffic or the observer, and the ground personnel are coordinating with other agencies or other ground personnel. This area of operation is challenging in the best of times and downright dangerous when things are not going well.
Keep it simple. Have a set schedule of priorities when dealing with ground units. Fly the aircraft first. Crew communication comes next, then ATC, then the ground units. Aviate then communicate.
Utilize compass directions when dealing with vehicles and left, right, front, back when dealing with units on foot. Even then there can be confusion. How many times have you had to say, "No, your other left"? When you are flying too low your noise signature is so loud that the ground units on foot cannot hear their radios. And don't forget that your lights can be blinding to the bad guys… and to the good guys.
You may find that many officers do not know what you are capable of doing from the air. Thanks to Hollywood, they may think that you can hover over a building on a 110-degree day with the entire SWAT team on board and pick up a stranded team of weightlifters. One of the best methods for preventing misunderstandings is to brief ground personnel on what to expect from you and what you expect from them. Try to keep everyone on the same page before you arrive on scene.
I know that it may seem unusual to consider ground threats a human factors concern. However, many of the missions that law enforcement crews fly are at low altitude or in close proximity to ground based hazards.
Low altitude flight proficiency is a skill that is acquired through training and experience. It would not be in the best interest of flight safety to have a new, inexperienced pilot flying low altitude missions. The risks are too high. Training for low altitude operations helps to keep the margin of safety within acceptable limits. Learn where obstacles are in relation to your area of operations. Review publications for new aviation obstacles. Set a minimum altitude for a given location and/or environmental condition. Provide yourself with a "reactionary gap" from the hazards associated with low flight.
As your experience and the experience of your crew grows, reassess your limitations within the expectations of the mission. Your human capabilities determine how well you operate within this environment.
It is your human limitations that will also affect how well you fly in relation to ground threats. Your reaction time in relation to a threat is reduced simply because you are closer to the threat. Additionally, you have to deal with other factors, such as low light conditions, NVG operations (a subject unto itself), environmental conditions (i.e. smoke or haze) and all of the other issues that we have looked at thus far in this article. Your limitations become magnified as you get closer to the ground.
Crew Dynamics & Discipline
Have you ever flown with someone that you could not stand? Where the only thing you thought about was finishing the flight and getting away from this person? How you interact with your crewmembers and how they interact with you is a critical aspect of safe flight operations.
There are many issues that involve crew dynamics, such as personalities, life experience, professional background, seniority, TFO or pilot, civilian or sworn personnel, etc. Crew dynamics focuses on our differences, and our similarities, while operating in the flight environment.
Unfortunately, there is no easy answer when dealing with crew issues. However, there are two tactics that can help to reduce the potential for crew conflicts: briefings and flight discipline.
Pre-flight briefings help to reduce confusion between crewmembers and answer questions before leaving the ground. Post-flight briefings are used to address issues that, with hindsight, help to improve the safety of future flights. Briefings are an opportunity for all crewmembers to bring attention to issues before they become a safety risk. Additionally, they can be used to prevent the repetition of poor decisions or address crew issues.
Flight discipline, as it relates to crew dynamics, is focusing on communication issues that are pertinent to the safety of flight. An example is keeping the flight deck "sterile," where only those issues that are relevant to flight operations are discussed. A low orbit at night in a wire environment is not the time to discuss department politics or the purchase of a new boat.
Discipline involves putting our personal differences aside and focusing on ourselves as professionals. You do not have to like the person you fly with; however, you do have to maintain the level of safety and professionalism our occupation demands. When issues arise or there is conflict within your crew, keep a disciplined approach to maintaining your professionalism and the safety of flight.
R.A.V.E.N. is Always Watching
By Gregg Lubbe, Lt. Commander
Aviation Operations Regional Aviation Enforcement (RAVEN)
The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit tackles the primary missions of responding to calls on crimes in progress, initiating search and rescue missions, performing counter-drug surveillance and attending to other emergencies such as fire and flood.
The job doesn’t end in the skies for Washoe officers, though. RAVEN’s operations also require that the officers bring special talents to the table in order to reduce costs; they must be able to multitask. Because we have officers who are trained to maintain airplanes, fly and train others to fly, we have reduced employee costs for training pilots and maintenance personnel by tens of thousands of dollars.
This year, RAVEN will take on the secondary mission of hosting the Airborne Public Safety Association’s 35th Annual Conference. But it has taken some time for us to become so adept at juggling multiple balls at once.
In 1996, the Sheriff’s Office began to explore options for dealing with the increasing number of high-speed pursuits, lost children and criminal surveillance. We also evaluated the number of violent crimes involving guns, violent gang crimes and search and rescue missions. The unique needs of the Lake Tahoe region were also factored, with its numerous hiking, mountain biking and boating accidents. All of this, coupled with increases in highway construction, traffic problems, fire damage to Lake Tahoe residences, the need for Homeland Defense and several other elements, contributed to a slowing of law enforcement’s ability to respond in time to apprehend suspects during criminal acts.
Response time, though, wasn’t the only problem. We also recognized that performing our mission was becoming increasingly expensive.
Washoe County is very large, consisting of nearly 6,700 square miles, along with the mountainous terrain surrounding Lake Tahoe and other rural areas. Search and rescue operations in a county as large as Washoe County are prohibitively expensive in addition to being time consuming using ground vehicles.
We thus found that we were expending a significant amount of money and manpower in an inefficient manner. Most high-speed pursuits were resulting in damaged vehicles and injuries. Most searches were taking days for ground units to complete, while using large numbers of personnel to search remote areas around Lake Tahoe and in the high desert.
The tactics necessary to follow hardcore criminals without being seen during their criminal acts, especially in heavy traffic or mountainous terrain, were all being negatively affected. The amount of overtime alone justified finding an alternative method for performing our necessary tasks.
The solution to the problem was, it seemed, to start an aviation program within the office. However, it was at first difficult to justify the amount of start-up spending required to build an aviation unit. After all, the costs of performing our mission on the ground were exactly what made the aviation unit necessary.
So in 1996, former Sheriff Richard Kirkland directed a project that would start up an aviation unit without spending large amounts of money. He directed the creation of RAVEN, a unique program that would be advanced almost entirely by obtaining inexpensive military surplus helicopters.
The unit would benefit from the Department of Defense Authorization Act of 1994, which Congress passed to allow the United States military to sell unneeded vehicles, spare aircraft engines, helicopter rotor blades and hundreds of other essential aviation-related parts to law enforcement agencies.
RAVEN Unit assets include one seized (obtained for free) fixed wing aircraft, three surplus (donated) rotor wing aircraft and over $3 million in excess federal property. All were obtained by the Washoe County Sheriff's Office Military Liaison Section from the Federal Government’s surplus property program.
The RAVEN program flourished rapidly during a six-month trial period. The Washoe County Board of County Commissioners overwhelmingly approved the continuance of the program a year later. Deputy Sheriffs from Washoe County and Police Officers from Reno P.D. were then assigned to RAVEN, making it a regional/consolidated unit.
The RAVEN Unit operated solely on monies from asset forfeiture accounts and from citizen cash donations for the first four years of its existence. In July of 2000, Washoe County’s current Sheriff, Dennis Balaam, was successful in securing an actual budget for RAVEN. The program received the full backing of the citizens of the County and the Washoe County Board of County Commissioners.
The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office RAVEN Unit has become an essential element of law enforcement, search and rescue and fire support throughout the entire Northern Nevada and Eastern California region.
RAVEN routinely assists the Reno and Sparks Police Departments, the Nevada Highway Patrol and the local offices of the FBI, DEA, FAA and Secret Service, along with counties all around Lake Tahoe, which include the California Highway Patrol and the Coast Guard Station at Lake Tahoe.
The Unit encompasses a multitude of aviation functions and is responsible for assisting numerous departmental divisions such as: Washoe County Search and Rescue, the Patrol Division (Reno, Lake Tahoe, and Gerlach), SWAT and the Detective Division. RAVEN also works closely with the Special Enforcement Teams (SET) of the Reno Police Department and the area’s Consolidated Bomb and Gangs units.
The RAVEN Unit averages well over 300 helicopter missions per year. In 1997, it was combined with the Consolidated Extradition Unit to form the "Aviation Operations Unit."
Aviation Operations is composed of the following subsections:
1. The Washoe County Consolidated Extradition Unit (CEU), utilizing one seized fixed wing aircraft, a 1978 Cessna T-210.
2. The Washoe County Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit (RAVEN), utilizing three military helicopters secured from the 1033 program: two OH-58s and one HH-1H.
3. The Military Liaison Section, whose function is to procure free surplus property and new equipment, via the Department of Defense Authorization Act, from the military at a greatly reduced price for use within all divisions of the Washoe County Sheriff’s Office and community.
These highly technical organizations fall under the Command of the Patrol Division Commander of the Washoe County Sheriff's Office, Marshall Emerson. It is the duty of the Lt. Commander to supervise the Aviation Operations Unit and its subsections. The current Lt. Commander—who just happens to be the author of this article—is an FAA Certified Flight Instructor (CFI), a 23-year veteran of the Washoe County Sheriff's Office and has 25 years of commercial, corporate and military fixed wing aviation experience (civilian) and 20 years of military rotary wing flight experience.
In addition to duties as the Incline Village (Lake Tahoe) Substation Commander, the Lt. Commander supervises six full-time aviation personnel, 25 part-time military and civilian pilots, Deputy/Officer Tactical Flight Observers (TFO) and aircraft mechanics. Most of these individuals are Washoe County Deputy Sheriffs or Reno Police Officers.
But the presiding Lt. Commander isn’t the only member of the Unit that is asked to take on several different jobs. In fact, in order to maintain a balanced budget, all Unit personnel are now required to multitask. Most pilots are dual rated in both helicopters and airplanes, or are A&Ps. Unit aviators serve as Certified Flight Instructors as well. All Unit helicopter pilots are military trained and in most cases still fly with the National Guard. The Unit transports all fugitives for the cities of Reno and Sparks, as well as for Washoe County. Last year, the Unit moved more than 400 fugitives in and out of the state. This collaboration has shaved over $500,000 from the extraditions budget annually.
Additionally, our pilots and maintenance personnel are part-time members of the Nevada Army and Air National Guard and are continuously trained there at no cost to Washoe County.
Currently, the OH-58s are flown on patrol on a regular basis, and the HH-1H Huey is flown for search and rescue, as well as tactical mission support.
The OH-58s have a FLIR 8000/Laserdyne monitor with video record capability, a SX-16 Nightsun, a CAD/ Dispatch computer and NVG modifications throughout. The flight crews have AN/AVS-9 night vision goggles for use in flight.
The equipment used by Aviation Operations and their modifications have been implemented over time, and the most recent improvements have been accomplished largely with Homeland Defense grants. The latest avionics and radio modifications were installed and completed by Paravion Technology in Fort Collins, CO. The Huey has a high-speed electric rescue hoist for SAR operations. All three aircraft have mounts for the FLIR and Nightsun, allowing the use of one set of equipment on any of the helicopters.
As is clearly demonstrated by this unit's performance over the past nine years, if we did not have the helicopters, we would have incurred a significant additional expense, to say nothing of the lives that could have been lost.
On behalf of the citizens of Washoe Co. and the Sheriff's office, we look forward to seeing you all at this year’s APSA Conference. Reno boasts a playground more diverse than most major cities; a place where tourists travel from all around the world to water ski, snow ski and play PGA level golf, often in the very same day.
Welcome to Reno, where even the city has learned to multitask.
Responsibilities of the Aviation Safety Officer
By Jay Fuller
APSA Safety Staff
All law enforcement aviation units, regardless of size, require a bona fide safety officer. Even a three-member flight department can have an effective safety program with a good safety officer.
The aviation safety officer (ASO) is the heart of a unit’s safety program. The effectiveness of a safety program rests largely on the energy, effort and initiative of the ASO. It is a staff position, which means the individual(s) assigned have no line authority outside of the safety function. He or she is selected by and reports directly to the unit chief, and in this regard derives authority from the unit chief. I have seen instances where the ASO has been placed under operations, but this is a mistake, since the safety position is one of oversight and typically plays devil’s advocate to operations.
Ideally, the ASO should have:
Line experience – You can’t effectively evaluate a system unless you’ve been there.
Credibility within the organization – The ASO is often in the unfortunate position of having to tell people (supervisors or rank and file) things they don’t want to hear. Without credibility, the audience is significantly reduced.
Good people skills – This follows from the above.
A serious interest in aviation safety – Those who do any job the best are believers in the task.
An interest in administrative program work – A significant amount of the safety job is simply administration, operating and documenting a program.
Dedication to the organization – Just like the Chief, the ASO should have a vision and genuine concern for the aviation unit.
The ASO does not have to be a pilot. Tactical flight officers, paramedics or unit-assigned observers are very reasonable candidates. In the medium to large units (five members or more), a hierarchy with defined positions will typically exist and there should be no problem incorporating the ASO staff position. In the small unit, assigning staff positions is more problematic, but in units of this size, all members typically have some unit responsibility and are relied on more heavily. A three-person unit will typically have individuals pulling solo shifts, and the relationship between members will be more like partners than a strict supervisor - subordinate connection. This enables one individual to stand back and maintain the objective viewpoint of an ASO.
The ASO is not the unit chief or in charge of training or in charge of maintenance. Since safety is a job of providing internal unit oversight, it is not compatible with line supervisory responsibility (outside of the safety function, see below). At the other extreme, in large law enforcement aviation units, it may be feasible to have a standalone position. This is not healthy either. An important part of safety is participating in, knowing and understanding the day-to-day work, so the ASO should have some line responsibilities and not be limited solely to staff duties. Being a line crewmember is necessary, being a crew instructor is appropriate, but being a line supervisor is neither.
Although he or she may want to accept input from other supervisors within the organization (including supervisors outside the aviation unit), it’s important that the unit chief make the final ASO selection alone. The ASO is dependant on the unit chief for authority, and the unit chief is dependent on the ASO to provide much of the internal unit oversight. The latter means that on occasion a safety officer will be telling the unit chief things he or she doesn’t want to hear. Consequently, there must be complete confidence and trust within the relationship. Once selected, the ASO and unit chief should agree on an initial duty set and reasonable job objectives. In some situations, a reduced operational workload for the ASO should be considered to make time for increased administrative responsibilities.
After selection, the ASO must be appointed in a very public way. The unit chief should make a formal announcement at a unit staff meeting, specifying some of the duties and affirming that the safety position has the full support of his or her office. The chief should back this up with a memo outlining the same information for individuals not present, for outlying stations, if any, and for future reference. This same memo should be up-channeled by the unit chief to higher agency headquarters for distribution to both command and staff personnel. If the aviation unit facility has a personnel directory board listing the unit chief and other supervisors, the ASO should be added to this grouping. Due to increased administrative responsibilities and for additional visual emphasis on the position, the ASO should be given an enhanced work area. This may mean a new office or simply a new desk with a dedicated filing cabinet. The ASO may also need a computer with appropriate software and Internet capability.
Most medium to large organizations can justify appointing an assistant ASO. This individual can be selected by the ASO with approval of the unit chief. An assistant position insures coverage of the safety function at all times and provides continuity when the primary ASO retires, or is reassigned. Large, multi-station units may need to assign safety responsibilities to individuals at each location. The ASO becomes a manager in his own right, supervising the activities of a staff.
Under most circumstances, safety is a three-to-five year job. During this timeframe, most people start losing the energy and motivation it takes to maintain a proactive program. At the same time, personnel within the flying unit will become somewhat "immune" to messages from the same individual. After a tour as ASO, an individual may return to a line function, shift to another staff position or gravitate into command, depending on the size and needs of the organization.
Turnover in the ASO job is healthy. Not only does it provide "new blood" and new ideas, it increases the number of unit personnel having experience with, and an appreciation for, the safety program.
In large aviation organizations such as the airlines or the military, safety is a career field. This may be a stretch for most law enforcement aviation units, but the ASO function should still be considered as necessary as having a unit chief.
More than just SAR!
Search, Locate, Communicate, Plan & Rescue
By Deputy Bill Quistorf
Chief Pilot, Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office
"Fallen climber, 5,500 foot level, Monte Cristo area, possible broken bones."
This is an example of a typical call for response that the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office receives for a Search and Rescue mission in the rugged Cascade Mountains of Washington State. Sometimes the initial information we receive is vague or incorrect. As many in the SAR business know, searching for a lost or injured hiker or climber is just the first step in what can turn out to be a very complex operation. Many calls for response come in towards the end of the day, leaving little time to conduct a daylight search. Factor in the time used to respond to the scene, and the window for searching during daylight shrinks even more.
The Sheriff's Office supervises and directs SAR operations in the county, while working closely with the Snohomish County Volunteer Search and Rescue organization and the Everett, Seattle and Tacoma Mountain Rescue organizations. These volunteer groups are vital to the success of mountain rescue operations. The organizations are made up of individuals who possess the technical skills, background and experience necessary in complex mountain rescue. Couple these skill sets with knowledge of the local climbing routes and terrain and it makes them indispensable for completing a SAR mission successfully. The volunteer groups also train in the environment and have selected team leaders who can properly supervise members to conduct safe, organized SAR missions.
Conducting the Search
Prior to launching our helicopter, the pilot-in-command completes a formal Risk Assessment and conducts an Air Mission Briefing. Once airborne and enroute to the scene, the PIC attempts to gather more information. Meanwhile the SAR Sergeant contacts the reporting party, speaks with witnesses and dispatches ground teams to a staging area. Once airborne, one pilot concentrates on flying the aircraft, the other navigates, searches and communicates on the radios. Aircraft crewmembers, consisting of two or three members of our Helo Response Team (HRT) and two crewchiefs conduct the aerial search. The crew in the back has a wide range of view and the ability to see straight down between tall timber and deep ravines. The pilot in the left seat has a bubble window in our modified UH-1H that allows for vertical viewing. All crewmembers are on the alert for flight hazards.
If the initial aerial search proves unsuccessful, we land at base ops to gather more information. Hearing the reporting party's story first-hand helps us get a mental picture of the sequence of events and develop a likely route to or location of the missing or injured party. After the briefing, we then begin insertion of ground teams including Mountain Rescue units. Our HRT is also inserted after the initial phase, and we continue to conduct search operations while traveling back and forth to base operations to pick up additional teams.
Locating then Communicating with the Subject
Often the aircraft is first on scene to locate the missing or injured party. We immediately notify base of the subject's location. If we are unable to land close to the subject or if it looks like it will take our HRT some time to travel to the party after being dropped off, we will lower a radio to the subject. The radio lower procedure has proven to be a valuable tool in our SAR operations. A portable radio is turned on and placed in a small orange stuff sack along with directions for use of the radio. The radio also has simple operating instruction labels placed directly on it. The bag is lowered to the subject. When the radio bag reaches the ground, the crewchief drops the lowering line to the ground.
Once we are in radio contact with the subject, we can determine his or her exact situation, including the extent of any injuries. If we need to depart the area for fuel, equipment or additional personnel, we can let the subject know how long it will be before we return. We can also give the subject additional instructions to follow, such as "pack up all loose equipment and extinguish the camp fire before we return." HRT or the ground teams can also communicate directly with the subject if they are traveling to their location.
Developing a Plan
The next step is to develop a plan of rescue. This may simply involve directing ground rescue teams to the subject or it may involve inserting HRT by landing nearby, low-hover operation or via shorthaul. Our HRT and crewchiefs are highly skilled in low hover ops, a technique we practice repeatedly. The shorthaul insertion method is used only for critical missions where HRT cannot travel quickly to the injured subject on the ground and when a technical insertion has much greater risk to rescuers than a shorthaul insertion.
Once HRT is on the ground, they travel to the subject. After they reach the subject, if additional rescue gear and medical equipment are needed, we conduct a cargo lower procedure using a rope and "Petzl ID" device. The device is mounted to the aircraft roof-rack. When the gear reaches the ground, the aircraft rigging is disconnected, and the crewchief drops the rope and a rope bag to the ground. We return to our staging LZ, rig for shorthaul, and wait until HRT is ready for extraction.
One of HRT’s jobs is patient assessment and patient care. They relay information back to us and to base. The subject’s injuries are treated, and the subject is secured in a litter. The litter is placed inside a "Bauman bag," a specially designed nylon bag with a number of straps installed that allow it to be safely clipped into the shorthaul rope ring. The injured subject is then flown down the mountain to a waiting aid car. If the injuries are very serious, we load the subject inside the aircraft and fly to a regional hospital.
If the subject is not injured, or does not require litter transport, but is in a situation where a shorthaul extraction is necessary, the rescuer will place them in a "screamer suit." The suit is shaped like a large, three-point vest. It fits securely around the subject and is clipped in at a single point to the shorthaul rope ring. The subject sits comfortably in the suit at the rescuer's chest level. Subject and rescuer are then flown off the mountain and back to the nearby staging LZ.
Training Proficiency and Safety are Paramount
We are constantly evaluating our procedures, equipment and training in order to improve operations. After each training mission and rescue operation, we conduct a debriefing with the aircrew and HRT. We go over the mission from start to finish, critiquing ourselves or raising issues at each step. We have learned a tremendous amount during these debriefings. Based on the lessons learned, we make changes and develop procedures and techniques that help us perform our mission more safely and more efficiently. We also look to other agencies that conduct similar missions and learn from their techniques and policies.
We train often to maintain proficiency in these complex tasks. Aircrew coordination and Crew Resource Management are a must for us. Whenever possible, we conduct a ground rehearsal of low hover ops and cargo lower ops prior to the aircraft launching, including training missions. Monthly mock rescue scenarios are conducted where the crew skills are put into practice. An Air Safety officer and a Ground Safety officer are appointed for every mission and training scenario.
At the end of the day all the training pays off. There is nothing better to hear after completion of a rescue mission than, "that went off just the way we trained!"
About the author: Deputy Bill Quistorf is the Chief Pilot for the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office, a former military helicopter flight instructor and former member of the Army’s High Altitude Rescue Team in Alaska.
The World’s Elite Search and Rescue Operatives
By David Markley
The US Coast Guard’s rescue swimmers go through training as hard as any branch of the military.
After a hearty breakfast, day one of the U.S. Coast Guard’s advanced rescue swimmer school started in the gym, with a strenuous physical fitness contest. To give you an idea, the winner in the push-up contest did 110. The next stop was the pool, where students were required to race through a 500 yard swim in less than 12 minutes. And that was just a light warm-up.
I recently had the unbelievable good fortune to be invited to observe a session of this challenging school at the Coast Guard Station in Astoria. It occurred to me as I was observing the class that if I were to come into contact with these guys in a professional setting, rather than in training, it would most likely mean I was in serious trouble. A sinking boat or downed aircraft, possibly with high seas and freezing cold waters, are just some of the scenarios the young men and women training to be Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers must be prepared to handle.
The attendees of the advanced rescue swimmer school, as the name of the course implies, are anything but novices. To be eligible for the course, the students have to go through nearly a year of intense training. And only about one half of the students who start that first year successfully complete it. Basically, the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer must have the flexibility, strength and endurance to function for thirty minutes in heavy seas. Having already demonstrated their ability in passing the basic school, the advanced school provides an opportunity for the swimmers to apply what they have learned in the field to both new and familiar rescue scenarios.
The class I observed included two students who were Navy Rescue Swimmers. In the early days of the program, Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers were trained by the Navy. The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer School as it exists today was actually modeled after the Navy Program. A separation of the two schools was eventually necessary, as the missions of the two outfits are decidedly different. A Navy rescue swimmer is most likely going to be rescuing a downed pilot who has been thoroughly trained in search and rescue procedures. The Coast Guard Rescue Swimmer’s mission can be even more difficult, as he or she will most likely encounter a civilian with no training and, depending on conditions, possibly desperate. It is therefore still common practice for Naval officers to attend Coast Guard courses because there is a fair amount of common ground and shared experience. I was also informed that other branches of the military attend the advanced school as well.
Following the morning warm-up on day one, the students, instructors and I retired to the classroom for something the students referred to as "death by PowerPoint." The session started with a helicopter egress briefing to insure that students used to flying one helicopter would know the egress procedures for the other. For this exercise, the Coast Guard would fly both their HH60 and HH65 aircraft.
The main function of these briefings is to discuss the techniques necessary for the afternoon’s activities. (Although it’s hard not to imagine that some of the students think the main purpose is to enjoy a much needed breather.) The first day’s activities were to include a swim beyond the surf line and 30 minutes of treading water before swimming back. After the swim, the students were to do some basic hoist lifts out of the surf.
After the briefings, the class reconvened at the beach. The swimmers donned their dry suits and headed for the water. The 55 degree water and six to eight foot waves were sure to make for a challenging swim. As the HH60 orbited overhead, the swimmers made their way to the surf line and beyond. After what seemed like a short time to me – but I am sure a long time to the swimmers – the return signal was given. As the swimmers left the water, I was impressed by their resilience. These guys had just completed a swim that would have worn anyone else out and they were ready for more. Unfortunately, the more was not to be, as the fog rolled in and a low ceiling put an early end to the days training activities.
Day two started a lot like day one, but the early morning physical fitness activities were a little less strenuous – the students got to play a little volleyball. Then it was back to the classroom for briefing. The PowerPoint presentation may not have killed the viewers that day, but the cliff rescues they would have to perform certainly had a chance. While a cliff rescue is not the first scenario one might think of in regard to the Coast Guard, it is definitely a possibility, especially in areas with no helicopter hoist capability by local agencies.
After the briefing, we got on the road for Cape Disappointment, just a short forty minute drive across the bridge into Washington. The HH65 was down for maintenance that day, so the exercise was conducted with an HH60. Upon arrival, I was escorted by one of the instructors down the cliff to a vantage point. I carried my camera bag, and the instructor carried a full size and weight dummy.
As I waited for the first rescue, I remember thinking, I’m a good 200 feet above the water, no way I’ll get hit with rotor wash. The HH-60 came in for the first sequence at about 100 feet above me—at least 300 feet above the water. I got drenched. Fortunately for me, the pilots recognized my position, and subsequent rescue sequences came in a bit higher.
The basics of the rescue are simple. First, the helicopter is positioned directly above the victim. The rescue swimmer deploys on the hoist cable from the helicopter. The rescue swimmer is not in radio contact, so hand signals provide all communication on positioning the helicopter to the pilot and crew. The object of the training exercise is to guide the pilots over the victim and attach a capture strap. Once the strap is in place, it is removed and each student exits the cliff and returns to the aircraft. Again, hand signals are used to guide the helicopter pilots. The last student is hoisted to the helicopter with the rescue dummy in the capture strap.
Unfortunately for the instructors, fuel in the HH60 ran short, and the last rescue dummy had to be removed manually, so once again someone had more to carry up the hill than I did. But somehow, I was the only person who looked exhausted at the end of the climb.
That’s probably because all of the instructors are former rescue swimmers themselves, which is rather obvious looking at the shape they’re in. The instructors are also members of the "Standardization Team," or as they call it, the "Stand," a unit based out of Mobile, Alabama. The purpose of the Stand is to observe all rescue swimmer units to insure uniformity in policy and technique.
All of the most popular perceptions of what rescue swimmers do was recognized on days three and four. Capture strap and basket rescues in high seas were on the menu, and Mother Nature was cooperating. There were waves breaking up to 15 feet in the practice area, and you could feel the electricity of anticipation among the swimmers. Witnessing these displays of courage can only give one a glimmer of what these people really face under operational conditions.
I spent a week with people who make their living risking their lives to save the lives of others they don’t even know. For law enforcement officers, this sounds like the basic creed of any search and rescue professional. But the Coast Guard Rescue Swimmers, by the time they complete their rigorous training, are among the elite search and rescue operatives in the world.
If I’m ever in a situation where I require rescue from the ocean, I will feel much better when I see that red and white HH60 or HH65 coming towards me with a young man or woman in the door ready to jump in and save my life.