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Monday, August 1, 2005

Search & Rescue Special Report

THE UNITED KINGDOM IS PRESSING EFFORTS TO NOT only transform the way search and rescue services are provided for national governments but how those national capabilities are controlled, managed and integrated into overall emergency response.

U.K. agencies involved in SAR are seeking ministerial approval to proceed with the initial steps of a program for new contractor helicopter support for maritime and aeronautical SAR. The Department for Transport's Maritime and Coastguard Agency and the Ministry of Defence are proposing solicitation of bids to provide SAR capabilities at the four bases from which Bristow Helicopters currently operates under government contract.

The bids would be for a five-year contract, with a one-year option, that would be let by year's end and take effect July 2007. That effort could lead to competition for a more comprehensive, long-term award to manage civil and military SAR services for the United Kingdom, with that contract tentatively envisioned as taking effect in 2012.

"We're going to provide an operational requirement--rescue at sea, off cliffs, on mountains, transport firefighters--and ask industry to propose how to meet that requirement," said Peter Dymond, deputy chief of the Coastguard and head of search and rescue for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency.

Notably, he said, the agencies are not looking for platform-specific solutions tied to particular aircraft. Rather, they want proposals for capability-based solutions. As contemplated now, the solution would involve a private finance initiative in which the contractor secures financing backing for the venture, with that funding secured by the promise of regular, long-term government payments under the contract.

On a broader scale, U.K. officials are working on more effectively integrating the response of civil agencies, military forces and industry contractors to aeronautical and maritime SAR calls. Those efforts likely will extend to the integration of those capabilities to emergencies and disasters that do not involve distressed ships, boats or aircraft.

This latter possibility stems from lessons that U.K. officials have drawn from recent local and international disasters. These range from the Dec. 26, 2004 "Boxing Day" tsunami that killed more than 280,000 and decimated coastal areas from Africa and India to Southeast Asia, Indonesia and Singapore to severe flooding in Carlisle in England in January.

U.K. officials have heard the same assessment from counterparts in India as they did from emergency-response commanders in Carlisle, Dymond said. "What disappears first are the indigenous resources to respond to and manage the emergency."

The U.K. initiatives were spurred by longstanding efforts by the International Civil Aviation Organization and the International Maritime Organization to persuade the world's nations to harmonize their search-and-rescue practices. The work by those bodies led the United Kingdom in 1999 to begin looking at how its disparate SAR capabilities and organizations could work more effectively and efficiently together. That in turn prompted the Transport Dept. and Defence Ministry to create several groups to examine issues of SAR coordination and efficiency. These included the U.K. SAR Strategic Committee, which is charged with advising on the structure, scope and framework of the organization of U.K. search and rescue and promoting effective and efficient co-operation between the various SAR organizations, and the U.K. SAR Operators Group, implements tasks laid out by the strategic committee. Both have a Transport Dept. official as their chairs and a Defence Ministry official as their vice chairs. Another group created was the SAR Helicopter Harmonization Project.

Search and rescue in the United Kingdom is a mixture of separate government departments, emergency services and other organizations, including charities and volunteer organizations that play significant roles.

While the diverse groups are committed to working together, they all have their own procedures, traditions and cultures, and differences among them can cause tension and confusion.

In the arena of helicopter SAR, for instance, operations are conducted by the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and a civil operator, Bristow, which flies Sea Kings and S-61s under contract to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Each of those groups in the past has had its own training, operating standards, dispatch criteria and priorities, and charging regimes and arrangements. "For instance, military aircraft may not be available for SAR missions" if they are needed for what their service considers a higher priority mission, Dymond said.

Bristow operates from four Maritime and Coastguard Agency bases throughout the country, at Lee-on Solent, Portland, Sumburgh and Stornoway. The RAF uses six bases, at Chivenor, Wattisham, Valley, Boulmer, Leconfield and Lossiemouth, and the Royal Navy two, at Culdrose and Prestwick.. All but one of the bases provide round-the-clock coverage all year long. Portland operates only during the day.

Through the harmonization effort, Dymond said, a number of benefits are beginning to be been realized. SAR has been identified as a separate entity in the Defence Ministry. Officials are working on setting up a Joint Rescue Coordination Center to unify command and control of SAR mission. Toward that end, Bristow Helicopters' operations have been placed under the Defence Ministry's Aeronautical Rescue Coordination Center, which handles civil aeronautical and all military SAR. The staff of that center now includes a Coastguard officer charged with beginning to align procedures between it and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency's Maritime Rescue Coordination Centers.

Longer term goals are more ambitious. Officials are weighing the possibility of civilian contractors taking over the bulk of SAR work, with air force and navy personnel working with them in joint crews. Military crews would rotate between civilian-run stations and military units deployed in the field.

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