By Paul D. Turner, CARES Niagara
As a Search and Rescue emergency response organization, each and every member must be prepared for what he / she might find on-scene. Most of the time we spend our time at cold, dark, and often deserted airports or other such locations during a SAR Actual tasking. Tracking what most members expect to be yet another one of those ELT / EPIRB false alerts we generally respond to. We train in a manner where little consideration is given to what searchers might very well find when he / she arrives at the scene of an actual air, marine, or ground related accident.
Members who are called out on SAR Actual searches may be the first SAR response personnel to arrive at what might be, an extremely disturbing sight and experience, for those not prepared for what is likely to be found. Although the preservation of life is usually the first consideration – SAFETY must be a priority for anyone approaching such a scene. The contamination or destruction of evidence is yet another issue to be considered by the responding crew.
That soft ground below you might very well be the remains of a crew member or passenger of the ill fated flight. Do you know how you might be effected by such a scene? How would you react? It is best to consider these issues now before facing such a situation. Think about it – Talk about it – Mentally prepare yourself to take a PRIORITY ACTION APPROACH to manage the scene. What must be done immediately? What can wait? Is it Safe? Am I qualified? What are the unseen hazards? Will my actions endanger myself, and / or others, or make the situation worse?
Potential hazards include, the possibility of fire, explosion, shock hazard, hot fluids such as hydraulic or engine oil, battery acid, pressurized oxygen, sharp metal sections of the air-frame, and weapon or ejection systems on military aircraft. Don’t forget about the possibility of a hazardous cargo, and sometimes firearms or ammunition from a survival kit.
One must also remember that ground based hazards are also likely to be present in some locations. It is also possible that victims and debris are likely to be scattered over a large area, perhaps even caught over-head in trees or wires – Definitely a hazard worth looking up to. Don’t forget that hydro wires may have been taken down in the flight path of the aircraft. These are just some of the reasons that may present an overwhelming problem for civilian SAR response personnel with limited rescue training.
I have often heard people discuss walking up to a down aircraft to do the honourable and gallant – Lets save a life first and worry about the repercussions later – WRONG attitude! I can assure you that these are the people who endanger all our lives, the lives of possible survivors, and could be the down fall of civilian SAR response. First and foremost – Communicate immediately with the objective of getting the appropriate emergency services to the accident scene. Along with this objective is making an assessment of the situation.
This is absolutely necessary to ensure the preservation of life – Yours, mine, and those persons who were fortunate enough to have survived the accident. This is why you must give top priority to assessing the situation, and making absolutely certain that the appropriate safety precautions are taken at every step. If you fail to do so, you could easily, (and most likely will) make the situation worse, perhaps with considerable injury or loss of life. Although the following is a guideline only, since every accident scene will be a unique situation, it is recommended that all members review and understand these guidelines.
Exceptional judgment and common sense must be applied. Communicate immediately with emergency services, rescue personnel, and the Search Coordinator, or JRCC, and be sure to provide as much information as possible to the responding authorities about the location, situation, access, and approximate number of victims involved. Don’t forget to identify yourself and your tasking. Carefully assess the area for potential hazards, and do what you can to make the area safe, or DO NOT enter the area. There are many reasons for not entering the area, these generally include fire, heavy smoke, downed power lines, and natural hazards such as terrain or water. Do not smoke, or carry flares anywhere near the accident scene.
Remain well clear of any spills such as oil, fuel, or unidentified substances. Allow only the most essential personnel near the accident scene, it is both unacceptable, and there is absolutely no need for the entire crew to be walking through the accident scene. If it is necessary, do not wander aimlessly through the accident scene, move with purpose, taking care to avoid injury or contaminating what might be a crime scene. The Contribution Agreement currently in force specifically states in section 3.5 SAFETY – The Department of National Defence shall, insofar as possible, ensure the Federal authorities are aware that CASARA members retain the right to decline to participate in any activity which may jeopardize the safety of any person or aircraft.
Identify locations where survivors may be trapped or located, and only if you have determined it is safe to approach. Render the appropriate first-aid, which will likely be somewhat limited if survivors are trapped.
Use psychological first-aid techniques to calm survivors as is required. Maintain a detailed log of your actions on scene, remember your ability to recall information from memory will be limited after the incident is under control. The sooner information is committed to written form, the better. This information, and all other documentation, will become part of the official investigation for Transport Canada accident investigators, law enforcement personnel, and possibly used during litigation proceedings. Be sure to keep your thoughts, and notes clear and organized, without opinion, state only facts which you know to be true, hearsay and gossip must never be included as fact. Avoid disturbing the accident scene to the best of your ability, and be sure to preserve evidence which might assist the accident investigators, or other authorities.
If the scene cannot be approached, direct your energy to making the area accessible for responding authorities by moving the communication vehicle and any bystanders to a safe location and get lights on to make the area as bright as possible, and if appropriate get barricade tape up around the area to keep bystanders away . Once emergency personnel are on scene, immediately provide them with as much information about the hazards, survivors, and location of bodies that you may have discovered, as well as any other important information you might have.
Arriving on scene to find wide spread wreckage, seriously injured passengers, and fatalities can be an extremely disturbing and traumatic experience for even highly trained professional emergency personnel. It is therefore important that you give every consideration to training and preparing yourself for what could be the one time in your life when you really need to remain calm and act with confidence and professional ability.
Know your limitations, accept your limitations, and accept the awesome responsibility to which you have committed yourself by volunteering for the tasking of a SAR Actual. If you don’t believe you could handle what might be found – Don’t volunteer for SAR Actual tasking, there are lots of other areas in which you might be of assistance, other than on a search crew.