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Thursday, November 1, 2007

Search and Rescue: Building the Team

James T. McKenna

SEARCH AND RESCUE OPERATIONS HAVE A CONSTANT appetite for the new and improved.

Many a rescue technician and pilot lies awake at night mulling better techniques and tools for executing particular parts of their missions, and they rarely rest until they’ve tested out their most intriguing ideas. If the most intriguing involves a technique, they find someone to fly it and try out.

If it’s a tool, they’ll scour to globe to find, and if they can’t, they’ll gin it up themselves. Firm numbers might be hard to find, but anecdotal evidence says the SAR field has more than its fair share of entrepreneurial spirit.

So it’s no surprising that vendors of SAR equipment spend a lot of time looking for ways to gain an edge on competitors with new or enhanced products. The flip side is that they will face an unhappy and impatient customer base if they don’t fix what is considered lacking in their products.

We round up the latest efforts by vendors and manufacturers to satisfy that customer demand in an extensive, Web-exclusive compilation of SAR equipment and services, which you can view at www.rotorandwing.com. But that drive for new and improved begs the question of what is being to improve the primary tools in search and rescue: the people who execute the mission?

More and more seems to be the answer.

On the big-picture level, the showcase in SAR improvements remains the United Kingdom’s ongoing effort to transform how it ensures its offshore and overland SAR capability.

This year marks the start of the first phase of its SAR Harmonization project, with CHC Helicopter taking over the Maritime and Coastguard Agency contract for civil services from Bristow Helicopters after 20-plus years. That five-year contract, which CHC is fulfilling with new SAR-configured Sikorsky Aircraft S-92s and AgustaWestland AW139s, was a wake-up call for operators and manufacturers that the United Kingdom is changing the way it does business.

The next step is a 20-year-or-so contract that calls for unifying SAR services currently provided today by the coast guard contractor, the Royal Air Force, and the Royal Navy. U.K. officials want to do away with the expense of maintaining small fleets of SAR aircraft in the RAF and Navy, but they don’t want to lose the SAR capabilities among the personnel of those services. (Such capabilities are critical to support fleet operations at sea and combat SAR requirements.)

Four teams are vying for that longer term contract: AgustaWestland paired with Bond Helicopters; the Airknight team of Lockheed Martin, VT, and British International Helicopters; CHC and Thales, and the UK Air Rescue team of Bristow, SERCO, and FB Heliservices).

U.K. officials are expected to pair that list to two teams by mid-year.

Another area is in the simulation arena.

AeroSimulators, the Belgian/U.S. company that specializes in rotary-wing simulation and training devices that are mobile and relatively low-cost, is developing and emergency medical services trainer. The company CEO, Piet de Backer, said the device would allow a pilot to "fly" and EMS scenario at the same time that medical personnel behind him are working a simulated medical scenario. That is aimed at demand from the EMS sector for joint training capability, but can joint SAR training devices be far behind.

Joint SAR training is one-reason SRT Helicopters exists. The Bakersfield, Calif. offers customized training to emergency-services organizations, with an emphasis on training that integrates helicopters into the operation. While many agencies send their pilots to the aircraft maker for recurrency training, said SRT President and CEO Chris Gadbois, that does not really address the operational side of their mission, which should include the aircrew. "The idea is whole-crew coordination," Gadbois said. "In operations that involve a helicopter, even SAR ops, the missing piece is always the helicopter. The first time the people on the ground see one may be during the mission, and that’s never a good thing."

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