Stepping onto an aircraft, let alone an emergency service one, has inherent risks. But Blue Light Flying brings an extra layer – and not just the physical. It can go well beyond those of conventional commercial air transport (CAT).
We operate in complex fluid scenarios. I jokingly say to my airline friends: “I don’t really know where I am going when I walk to the aircraft. Or, for that matter, if I will start an engine before the task is changed to a higher priority or cancelled.”
Day and night, we witness fickle weather conditions. Add to this the emotional stress
of operating above, or arriving at, scenes where there are life-critical events for all involved. This is an extra burden for the crews – with either Coast Guard, Search and Rescue (SAR), Police, Ambulance or Fire involved. The altruistic crew will have arrived on scene to help.
They will have to manage the dangers to the people who may have dialed 999, 911, or 112, and themselves. This is where some form of Dynamic Risk Assessment (DRA) is used. However, nothing prepares a crew fully for the first watched suicide or large building fire, let alone a patient dying in your aircraft en route to hospital. These traumatic events add to the crew’s cumulative experience of trauma. A series of US papers in 2016 looked at this Repeated Exposure to Trauma (RET). Much like the well-referenced stress bucket, this is a constant topping-up of life-changing events of which we must be aware.
In the past decade, there has been the introduction of Peer Support and Trauma Risk Management (TRiM) programs, alongside Mental Health First Aiders, which crews have been able to access. Personally, being trained as both a peer supporter and First Aider was my mechanism to punch some holes into the proverbial ‘Trauma Bucket’. As Blue Light flyers, we need to be aware of the challenges we face – both at the scene and in the following weeks and months. We must understand that we are not alone and there is help! If you take anything from this article, your local doctor is a great place to start if you feel you need to talk. If that doesn’t suit, consider your peer supporters. They can signpost and help you at the start of the journey. We just need to know how to ask, or more importantly, offer help.
Blink of an eye
Nearly two years ago, I had one of those flights where it suddenly went wrong.
We owe it to ourselves and our families. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (The Right to Life) applies to the crew as well
It was the middle of winter, just after dusk, nearing the end of a 12-hour shift. The weather was poor, but within limits, with a steady but low cloud base around 800-1,000ft, with visibility from 30km-plus to 8km. We had been asked to help a local force with a high-speed vehicle pursuit. As a crew, we quickly decided that we could assist, but only if the chase came off the high ground and into built-up areas. As we arrived, a string of blue lights appeared off the hills, heading straight towards us. We picked up the car as it continued to flee from police, driving more erratically as the pursuit continued. Our job was to follow, add commentary and record events – all pretty standard for us. The car suddenly left the road and went down an alley, hitting an elderly member of the public, then crashing, with the vehicle’s occupants running away. We maneuvered the aircraft into a slow orbit to keep both in sight. It was now snowing, but I was able to maintain 40 knots and hold an 800ft orbit – our Radar altimeter set at 500’, as per our Standard Operating Procedures (SOR).
As we continued to orbit while keeping one of the occupants on camera, I saw in my peripheral vision what I perceived to be cloud at the top of the perspex. I lowered the collective a ‘sniff’, asking for about a 50ft/min rate of descent. The aircraft then plummeted at nearer thousands of ft/min. In a very British turn of phrase, I said ‘oh no’. In the next circa six seconds, I managed to recover the aircraft at around 114ft and climb away. We stabilized in a hover and gathered our thoughts. The perspex still looked odd, so I used the wiper. It cleared a centimeter of snow from the screen. A systems check confirmed we had no aircraft over limits (the torque gong had gone twice in the descent, as had the rad alt). So, we cleared the scene with two arrested, with the intent to head back to base for a healthy debrief.
We gathered our thoughts! Another exercise in British (in this case) understatement: after all, both myself and my front observer, albeit very briefly, thought we had lost it all and were about to ‘buy the farm!'
It was mentally parked with varying success, as we recovered the aircraft to base (with an alternate nearby if required).
Although this is an extreme event, you almost lose the fact that in this one flight, we also saw an elderly man run over and a car crash. Every one of your journeys collectively adds an emotional toll. I will never forget watching someone kill themselves as we were trying to help them. It doesn’t haunt me as it may do with those with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but there’s an already heavy burden.
That 114ft played a significant part in our conversations for months, shaping our outlook on flying and life as a whole, even now. The three of us reviewed our actions several times – and still believe we would have done the same thing. We had margins in place, operated within our published limits, but got caught out by an unusual event. Be it wind shear, a sudden downdraught, icing, our own dirty air from the constant orbits, maybe an incipient vortex ring, or all of the above. We will never know.
Every one of your journeys collectively adds an emotional toll
Keeping the rescuers safe
It draws out a conflict in us all. We go to help, but sometimes get the uncomfortable front row of misery that has unfolded beforehand. I spoke to a pilot who was overhead the Grenfell Tower fire in London. The potential choices he had to consider were unsettling enough, like: what if someone turned up on the roof? What options would I want to offer the crew, if any? The problem is you have to run multiple scenarios in your head before they may be needed, contemplating the physical risks. You also have to imagine (using your Visio sketchpad) scenarios that may never happen, but that you need to anticipate. Incidentally, I went to a smaller fire within a high-rise block of flats a year later. In my case I saw a fire-clear roof, but still ran through the mental exercise of: what if someone turns up on it? Do I offer the landing option (the answer was no at the time), or do I potentially have to see their fate unfold? I had at least asked myself the question. So, if the situation changed, I had a base decision to then review. These are untold stressors as you are exposed to real and option-generated scenarios.
We owe it to ourselves and our families. Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (The Right to Life) applies to the crew as well as the victim(s).
Please look after your people. For the managers, ask yourself the question: if my crews are faced with these traumas, what do we have in place for them to use? Make sure someone at least calls them sooner rather than later. It is not normal to witness a sinking ship, a large bushfire, a motorcycle crash… we need to help our crews manage the risks at the scene, then give them options to help them put some holes in their own ’trauma bucket’.