Dynamic flight risk assessments for SAR
Flight risk assessments in the realm of search and rescue missions should be dynamic, and include the entire crew onboard the helicopter, says Dan Deutermann
In issue 114 of AirMed&Rescue, we covered Flight Risk Assessment Tools (FRATs) used by fixed-wing air ambulance companies, and noted that for other parts of the airborne special missions sector, including search and rescue (SAR), the software used by operators may not be relevant enough to contend with the different kinds of higher-risk scenarios faced by SAR aircrews.
AirMed&Rescue spoke to Dan Deutermann, helicopter pilot and Managing Director of The Squadron Inc., an aviation risk management consulting firm, about how FRATs have been, and still are, successfully applied to the full spectrum of helicopter SAR missions, and it turns out that the manner in which this is achieved is due to a slightly different approach than that which is often promoted as a typically pilot-centric tool.
FRATs are essential for any SAR operator
The original article asserted that traditional FRAT software programs are not (yet) sophisticated enough to cope with the sheer volume of hazards (and the risks they present) that could be faced by a SAR crew launching on a distress call. “However,” said Deutermann, “that does not negate them from being used for more specialized missions like SAR using ‘crew-served’ aircraft, and in fact they have been used for many years for complex missions in many organizations, but how they are used is slightly different than what was described in the original article.
“What matters is the operational and risk versus gain doctrine of an organization,” he explained. For the US Coast Guard, for instance, who frequently engage in high-risk SAR missions, there is an understanding that heightened risk comes with heightened risk awareness, identification and mitigation strategies that must be adhered to. Risk assessment in complex missions is not a pilot-centric activity, it is a crew activity, and it should not be reliant on just one pilot to fill out a FRAT. Instead, that task should fall to the crew as a whole.
The discussion a FRAT sparks is the real value of the tool, and it should not be just checking boxes to make sure a generated number doesn’t cause a barrier to flying. While the pilots might be the ones to answer the crew’s questions about weather hazards, for example, the whole crew ultimately needs to be party to the discussion about known or anticipated hazards they might face during their duty period, and the risks these pose.
FRATs in SAR are the preliminary discussion between accomplished professionals who understand their roles in executing a mission, and before doing a unit’s risk assessment, they should have been educated via policy, mentorship and experience regarding how to deal with hazards that could affect how they will perform their roles effectively. Therefore, identifying and adhering to procedures, engaging in frequent training, utilizing mission-specific equipment, and revisiting them after learning from minor mistakes or major accidents, are all a means of showcasing a risk doctrine within the organization.
Ever-changing risk profile
FRATs are evolutionary in nature for simple and complex missions, which is key to ensuring risk assessments remain effective and achieve their aim of identifying hazards. Then, once actually on a rescue scene, if a hazard manifests itself, the crew can make more rapid judgements to decide if they want to take the risk, knowing the severity it presents in real time, by deploying proven mitigation measures. The FRAT should serve to set the mindset of the operators and focus their discussion on the ground and in flight to establish their appetite for risk (which ultimately should be aligned with the risk-versus-gain doctrine of the organization as a whole).
This discussion can also set the stage for what techniques or strategies they can employ as risk mitigation or avoidance on scene.
“The reason for this is that when – or if – things do go south during the mission – for instance, if the weather is actually worse than predicted and flying becomes too dangerous – the pilot can simply say something like: ‘we left the deck in the yellow, and now things are pushing us well into the red, time to abort and rethink another way to achieve the mission’. There is no need for a long discussion about it in the cabin, because the crew already understands what has happened. And when the crew reports back to base, the commanding officer also understands immediately that the potential for the weather to impact the job had been identified previously, and that the pilot saw the risk profile change, and reacted accordingly.” No harm, no foul, as they say, and the assets have returned safely to permit the organization to try again.
a rescue organization’s culture should be at the core of any FRAT
“SAR is dynamic,” said Deutermann. “There are always going to be variables, but a rescue organization’s culture should be at the core of any FRAT. What level of risk are they willing to take, balanced with defined levels of gain?”
While the initial FRAT discussion should take place at the start of a shift, in SAR operations there is every expectation there will be follow-on risk assessments once the crew arrives at the scene. Not filling out another FRAT, of course, but another similar and abbreviated chat on how to prosecute the rescue faced below.
“But the point here,” said Deutermann, “is that they are using their mental toolbox to identify and mitigate those risks on a person-by-person basis and as a crew, and they are working from a baseline established before they ever got the call to respond.” The pilot, hoist technicians and rescue swimmers all know what they have to do, and all understand the risks to them separately and as a whole, and a quick checklist (that by nature is based upon risk analysis and mitigation) can be easily performed to ensure everyone is in the right place, and is ready to perform the hoist rescue with the correct procedures, right gear, and highest level of safety possible given the hostile environments that SAR crews willingly fly into.
A unique operation
When it comes to each part of airborne special missions operations being unique, there are some additional aspects about FRATs to consider should an organization elect to adopt a FRAT in use by another team, or offered to them from a third-party vendor. For example, geographic cultural differences may mean that a pilot from one part of the world that helped make the FRAT for their operation could be more fatalistic in their approach to managing risk, while Deutermann also noted a significant difference in risk postures between different professional cultures like aerial law enforcement, for instance, and HEMS operations.
“Some police aviation units,” he explained, “were formed as force multipliers for police on the ground and may not even have been started or currently be managed by someone with any real aviation experience. As a result, I have seen policies or FRATs that reflect a cop driving a car rather than one driving a helicopter, with no account for that additional third dimension. Or they are so pilot centric they leave out the rest of the crew. So, for example, some police units have had to learn about fatigue management the hard way – as it applies to tactical flight officers, not just pilots – and they’ve had to learn fast as they witnessed the person running the mission not perform optimally during a high-risk event taking place on the ground that is heavily relying on that eye in the sky.”
Geographical environments too play a major part in hazard identification and risk management
Geographical environments too play a major part in hazard identification and risk management. “In Barrow, Alaska,” Deutermann recounts, “there was a group of SAR aviators who were asked to identify the hazards they faced. One of them came back with ‘slow transit flights below 18 feet’, which struck me as oddly specific. When I asked about why he had chosen this 18-ft limit, the sober response was they hadn’t yet met a polar bear that could reach higher, and as I digested this, I realized there had been an actual event, which of course I had to hear more about.”
Okay, so not all FRATs are going to include polar bears reaching for the skids of your helicopter while you’re performing your rescue, but what each SAR operator needs to do, said Deutermann, is discuss the risk levels they perceive for that duty cycle or planned training flight to posture themselves to face the variety of hazards that live in their SAR realm, whether that is flying off the coast of Miami, or Ireland, or Spain, or over inland deserts and mountains.
Algorithms, for now at least, cannot take into account the opinions and experiences of four experienced crewmembers – there are simply too many variables to consider as noted in original article.
“FRATs in SAR … absolutely! Yet they should always be structured in a fashion that is inclusive of the crew, will translate to the organization what the risk posture is for the crew given their combined operational experience, and help cage their minds to rapidly make sound judgements in what will be a dynamic environment to safely bring them and their survivors home,” concluded Deutermann.