Drone Use in SAR – Part One: Selecting the Right UAV

Drone use in SAR 1

-Article courtesy of Mike Scott

With the cost and size of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) shrinking we are seeing more and more teams employing these amazing little machines to aid in searches and team coordination. However, like any piece of great gear, it’s only as good as the person using it. Some of you may be sitting on the fence when it comes to using a UAV or drone in your SAR operations. Some may be fully one way or the other. Over the next few posts I will try to clear up some of the misconceptions and maybe help you decide if this is something your team could benefit from.

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The Split 4 to 1 M.A.

Rigging the 4:1 MA

Often during a confined space rescue there is limited room. Hence the name – Confined Space Rescue!

In an industrial setting this is not only the case inside of the space but outside as well.

We tie our knots as small and as tight as possible, avoid using beckets on pulleys, and try not to use that swivel or extra carabineer. We use every trick we have learned to gain an inch here or foot there. Inevitably, there will be a scenario where we will have limited height and have to use a full length spinal packaging device, like a SKED stretcher.

Quickly, our options become limited in regards to rigging.

Two solutions that can be used are to rig for a low point edge transition with a pike (or pick) and pivot or rig a Split 4:1 Mechanical Advantage system, the focus of this discussion.

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Lessons Learned at GRIMP Day: Dual Team Command

GRIMP Day lessons

Each year, I get the evaluation sheets from the teams who took part in the Grimpday. After reading it , I have noticed that there is often a correlation between the time taken by the team to execute a rescue operation and the points awarded to the work of the team leader.

Out of a total of 100 points , 25 are potentially allocated to the team leader, 10 are allocated to the controllers “appreciation” and 30 to the timing. The remainder are for the rigging and rescue.

GRIMP Scenario Evaluation Sheets

If the team leader’s job wasn’t good , the appreciation of the controller won’t be good either. And finally the timing used for the rescue will not be extraordinary.

I have read and seen a lot of publications about the technical part of the job of rope rescuer, but I’ve never found anything on the way to command a rescue team.

While remaining humble, to put his finger on a problem or failure is still very easy but to propose a solution is always more delicate…

What I propose is not my own idea. I’m just using knowledge of military operations. The following is a basic infantry technique:

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The Other Side of Search and Rescue

When most hear the term SAR (Search and Rescue), they think of a group in brightly coloured jackets surrounding a lost hiker or a basket being raised from a sinking boat. For many this is mostly true, but SAR has a darker side that people outside of the community don’t like to talk about.

What happens when the rescue team doesn’t get there in time?

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Combat SAR vs TRAP


I am going to pre-qualify this article by saying that this information is based on my recollection of the subject matter and that I have been out of the active duty Marine Corps for over 20 years. Times have changed and perhaps some of the methodology has as well.

First off:
CSAR = Combat Search and Rescue
TRAP = Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel

What occurs when a pilot goes down behind enemy lines or in a hostile region?

Pilots are put through several different types of training to increase their survival odds should such an occurrence happen. Training like the SERE school (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) is designed to help them survive post crash or grounding of an aircraft, avoid being an easy capture, and give them tools to stay out of the reach of the enemy force looking for them.

How do we get them home?

What about sensitive information and equipment aboard the downed aircraft?

We’ve all heard about the infamous USAF Pararescuemen or “PJ’s”, the tactically elite SAR specialists of the military. Primarily these high-speed, low-drag (HSLD in “mil-speak”) guys are a major component in the Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR). Essentially they are search and rescue personnel with combat or tactical training. Primary mission is to locate, treat and extract assets that have come into dire circumstances. For the most part, that means downed aviators.


“The history of CSAR demonstrates the need for detailed planning and Dedicated efforts for combat rescues during war. The Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) is very capable force that conducts tactical recovery of aircraft and personnel. Too often, commanders confuse CSAR with TRAP and task the MEU to conduct CSAR missions. The U.S. Marine Corps’ position on CSAR is that it does not conduct the search in CSAR. However, the limiting factor is the U. S. Marine Corps inadequate capability to conduct recovery. Joint doctrine is vague on assigning CSAR responsibilities contributes to the confusion between CSAR and TRAP. Other service component’s force structure for combat rescue, particularly during OOTW, adds to the JFC’s tasking dilemma. USSOCOM, with its specially equipped aircraft, is the force normally tasked with theater CSAR even though it detracts from their primary mission.” 1

The Marine Corps, in its insistence on being self contained and self reliant for most of it’s needs, has it’s own capabilities. The Marines have always been the United State’s “9-1-1 Force” and it’s Marine Expeditionary Units (MEU) are strategically stationed aboard US Navy warships and bases around the world. Essentially, these units are an expeditionary quick-reaction force, used for anything from humanitarian aid to combat missions. An MEU will consist of Marine units from the Aviation (fixed and rotary aircraft) units, Ground (Light Armor, Infantry, Artillery, Heavy Armor) units and Logistics units for a troop strength of approx. 2300 Marines and commanded by a Colonel. In order for a MEU to become “Special Operations Capable” (MEUSOC), they must be proficient in several mission packages. These include:

  • 1 Amphibious Raids
  • 2 Non-Combatant Evacuation Operations
  • 3 Security Operations
  • 4 Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP)
  • 5 Direct Action
  • 6 Humanitarian/Civic Assistance


The training package can take upwards of 18 months to complete prior to deployment.

Therefore, “the primary objective of the MEU(SOC)…is to provide the theater Commander In Chief’s (CINC’s) with an effective means of dealing with the uncertainties of future threats, providing a forward deployed unit that is inherently balanced, sustainable, flexible, responsive, expandable and credible.”

The US Marine Corps has three MEU’s which deploy from the West Coast (MCB Camp Pendleton), three from the East Coast (MCB Camp Lejeune, NC) and one based in Okinawa, Japan (MCB Camp Smedley D Butler)

Although ParaRescue missions are part of a larger, planned rescue operation (CSAR), TRAP missions are spur of the moment and due to the strategic location of a MEU as part of a Battle group, probably more highly reported. They are typically teams of 20-30 Marines and utilize rotary aircraft for the mission.

Two such missions that pop into mind are the rescue of US Air Force Major Kenneth Harney and Capt. Tyler Stark who ejected out of their F-15E over Lybia in March of 2011.

The other one that made headlines was USAF fighter pilot Scott O’Grady who’s F-16 was shot down over Bosnia in June of 1995 and provided the film “Behind Enemy Lines” with its plot.

If there are any readers out there who have current knowledge of USMC TRAP missions and USAF PJ CSAR missions and wish to add to this, please do not hesitate to contact us through the Rescue Report.

1The JFC’s Dilemma: The USMC TRAP mission verses the Combat SAR mission” by Major Matthew D. Redfern, United States Marine Corps

Confined Space Rescue Standby: Repairing a Water Leak Under the Skytrain

Confined Space Standby-Watermain Leak

A few years ago, a Lower Mainland, BC, municipality undertook an initiative to better develop its confined space rescue capability. The first goal was to train a group of 60 workers in confined space rescue. To maximize the learning experience, class size was limited to 6 students. The second goal was to create a pool of highly trained personnel which could be temporarily utilized to provide rescue services for more difficult and hazardous confined space entries. They were referred to as “Go To” personnel. For two years this group underwent advanced exercises, assisted in selecting and standardizing equipment and coached their fellow workers during training and entries. Before this group was stood to, the municipality had to hire contractors to provide rescue services.

Who better to provide such services than internal personnel who have experience doing the work and intimately know the spaces?

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Tailboard Talks

Tailboard Talks: Safety meeting pre-entry

An industrial confined space rescue team has a distinct advantage over a public services one, such as a fire department. They have the ability to know when and where an entry is going to occur as well as the tasks to be completed within it. To ensure they can utilize this information, the rescue resources should be involved in the pre-entry preparation process.

An essential part of this preparation is the toolbox/tailboard talk. During confined space entries the rescue plan is often not considered until it is required, which is often too late. Either those that are part of the entry work do not discuss their assigned rescue duties or the designated rescue team is seated on the sidelines waiting to be called into action. There is critical information that can be shared to contribute to a successful response.

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Report on the Ch’iao Rescue Competition

ch'iao rescue competition

During last year’s GRIMP Day competition I met Jay Chen who had come to Belgium to visit us. He is the owner of a company called AIRAS, providing training for rope access workers and rescue teams in Asia.

Jay had already organized one rescue challenge in Taiwan called Ch’iao (The bridge ). He asked me to join him and his team for the second edition held this month.

This event takes place in the middle of Taiwan, in the mountains. The concept is to use bridges to provide a sense of elevation.

The Ch’iao event is held across two days.

The first day is an 100 m ascend race competition . You have to climb (attached with your buddy ) and pass knots (one on each work rope ). This race is an open race to all ropes access specialists (tree climbers, rope access workers, firefighters and rescue personnel).

I participated in this race along with my partner Damien of Petzl Asia. It was physical! Your equipment has to be prepared and you have to have excellent coordination with your teammate. It was a very good experience ! ! !

The second day was devoted to the rescue. 4 tests were organized.


Test 1 : The same location as the 100 m ascend competition. The teams had to rescue a patient from the bottom of the valley back up to the bridge.

Test 2 : One patient was hanging on the bridge cables. The mission was to access the victim and then have him descend to a secure area.

Test 3 : One patient is laying in the riverbed. Bring him back up to the bridge.

Test 4 : An intervention for a patient hanging on a highline.

In my opinion, Jay and his team have done a wonderful job! This was a fantastic event with excellent organization. 11 teams took part in Ch’iao (10 from Taiwan and 1 from Hong Kong ).

Participants were very interested in engaging other teams to exchange techniques and experience.

Ch’iao has a very nice future and I hope to see teams coming from all over the world for the next edition.

ch'iao rescue competition


Confined Space Suicide? Case Study

Underground Vault

Many years ago I responded, as part of my fire department’s technical rescue team, to a confined space incident. The call was dispatched around noon on a Monday. I was a fire fighter, and one of the Technical Rescue Technicians on the responding crew. Our Fire Department is comprised of both full and paid on call staff and covers a response area of 318 square kilometers. This call was attended to by our full time crews.

The initial response to the incident consisted of a four-person Engine company (their district), a battalion chief and the technical rescue team (consisting of an Engine + Technical Rescue Truck, six more personnel) and the duty Chief. In total we had 12 staff on scene, six of whom were technical rescue qualified.

Upon arrival, the initial information relayed to the crews from onsite staff was that a worker had entered the space in an attempted suicide. The space was a concrete, underground electrical vault approximately 20’ x 25’ with a hatch approx. 4’ x 4’. A permanent ladder provided access and the space had approx. 6’ of head room. There was a concrete dividing wall which essentially created a confined space within the main space. This space was accessed by an opening approximately 4’ x 4’.

Underground Vault

As part of the first in Technical Rescue (TR) apparatus, the initial request we had on scene was for documentation on the confined space (hazard assessment, entry procedures, etc). At this point we knew the worker had entered the site (verified by proximity entry card swipe) on Saturday approx. 36 hours prior. When the patient’s co-workers showed up on site for work on Monday, they found the patient’s personal effects on the their desk and a cryptic note alluding to the patient hurting themselves. The co-workers had initiated the 911 response.

Out in the facility yard, there was a hatch to the confined space propped open. When we asked the co-workers who found the note and personal effects about what had occurred to this point, they indicated that one of them put a fan into the hole and made entry into the space. The entrant noticed that the entry points into one of the interior spaces (confined space within a confined space) was covered by a sheet of plywood from the inside and appeared to be caulked or sealed shut. At that point the co-worker then left the space. The co-worker reentered the space with a second worker and a sledge hammer to ‘force’ their way into the interior confined space. When they finally broke thorough, the plywood ‘hatch’ fell inward and partially covered a compressed air cylinder of Nitrogen (to be determined later). From this point they are both unclear about what occurred. One worker indicated they immediately vacated the space. The other worker indicated he could ‘see’ the missing worker 20’ away in the space laying on the ground, meaning he had entered the inner space. He did not say he approached the patient however said the worker was ‘dead’.

Topside, some decisions had to be made and a rift began between responding agencies.

One group of responders took the stand that the worker had been in the space for over 36 hours and with the presence of the Nitrogen cylinder, they assumed a successful suicide attempt. They were of the opinion that it was an unsalvageable situation and therefore until HAZMAT team confirmed the atmosphere was safe, they would standby and consider it a ‘recovery operation’.

The Technical Rescue Team (TRT) took the stand that a subject isn’t ‘unsalvageable and dead’ until they are in the hospital ER, warm and confirmed dead. In the interim the TRT received the nod to get the rescue team dressed and ready to access the space and set up the associated rigging. The entry team of 2 responders dressed in full FR PPE and SCBA (the entrance to space was 4’ x 4’, ladder access and 6’ ceiling as ascertained by blueprints and confirmed the previous workers who entered). In the after action report, a concern about not using SAR and hardline communications was brought up. The TRT felt we had adequate PPE for the operation and that there was no need to set up SAR as the access point was large enough to allow for SCBA.

Law enforcement (LE) arrived on scene and considered it a crime scene. Police insisted on entering to document and collect evidence. Upon discussions however it was determined that neither LE or BCAS (British Columbia Ambulance Service Paramedics) staff are trained in confined space entry which prohibited either agency from entering the space.

It was finally decided to let the confined space rescue team into the space under the auspices that they document by digital camera every angle and item in the space. The entry team was equipped with FD issue radios and after confirming no atmospheric changes (the space had remained clean respirable air since our first monitor went into the space), we sent the team in. The team was told to progress slowly and methodically, then focus on gathering evidence via camera versus rescue. After a few minutes I looked down into the space to find a team member trying to get my attention (the radios had failed to transmit out of the concrete vault). The rescuer indicated that they had a ‘living patient’. This was repeated to all those around the site and the team continued to set rigging in place to extricate our ‘dead’, now ‘live’ patient. The team went from “recovery/evidence gathering mode” to ‘rescue mode”. Once the patient was extricated to the space opening, the patient was attached to a 4:1 mechanical advantage and extricated from the space. The patient was quite disoriented and lethargic and patient care was turned over to the paramedics.

The entry team confirmed that the patient had set up a small bed including foam mattress and 5 gallon bucket as a commode in the space. The patient had several prescription drug wrappers around the bed and a caulking gun. The nitrogen cylinder valve was closed and had not been discharged into the space.

What appeared to have occurred, was the patient had intended to seal themselves into the space, take a high dose of the medication, plug in their iPod earbuds and open the cylinder in order to displace all the oxygen in the space. It appears however that the medications either rendered the patient unable to operate the valve or unconscious.

Lessons learned from this event.

  1. At a rescue event, the trained and equipped Rescue Team needs to be utilized in the planning phase and their expertise considered.
  2. Never assume a recovery vs rescue.

Technical Rope Rescue on a Lobster Boat

ch149 cormorant

I was a Search and Rescue Technician in Greenwood, Nova Scotia, in 2012; a newly appointed Team Leader, meaning I was the ranking SAR Tech in a team of two on a helicopter crew consisting of the two SAR Techs, two Pilots and a Flight Engineer.

On the opening day of lobster fishing season in the Bay of Fundy, I reported to work for what I thought was an administration day, which meant I would be attending to my secondary duties; helping support our training, maintenance and operations, and conducting dry land training. Essentially, I wasn’t on the flying standby crew, so I didn’t expect to go flying.

The Transport and Rescue Standards and Evaluation Team (TRSET) was in town to audit all of our squadron paperwork and records, and generally inspect every aspect of our operation. Part of their job was to evaluate our “in house” standards checkers; the people that evaluate the members of the squadron to ensure performance standards are upheld. TRSET’s task was to observe our standards member conducting a “no notice check ride;” a spontaneous test for a member chosen by the checker. I was chosen to be the member. So my relatively low-key admin day became a trial by fire, and my test anxiety was starting to build.

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