Risk assessment education for rescuers

sunset rescue helicopter
A crash course in risk management

Charley Shimanski, Education Director of the Mountain Rescue Association, explains how tragedy led to a global training programme that enhances the safety of SAR personnel around the world

“They went in nose first … the crash site looks catastrophic.” All of our two-way radios went silent.

Those devastating first words came over our radios from KCNC-TV news helicopter pilot Mike Silva, who spotted the wreckage of our Civil Air Patrol search plane that crashed during the days-long search for Keith Reinhard, a Chicago sportswriter who had vanished during a climb of Pendleton Mountain in the Colorado Rockies in 1988. 

Immediate response

Several rescuers immediately jumped on an Army Chinook helicopter to fly to the scene with medical and extrication equipment. By the time we landed, ground rescuers had already reached the crash site and reported that Terry Leadens, our pilot, had died in the crash. To our relief, our onboard spotter, Don Drobny, survived, albeit with serious injuries.

In the aftermath

In the days and weeks that followed that wrenching event, I asked myself what risks I took, as the Incident Commander that day, including my call for a fixed-wing aircraft to assist on day five of the search. I struggled with my decision making and my questionable risk assessment. What training should I have had that could have avoided this tragic outcome? I searched high and low for any training materials I may have missed, on risk management and safety for aviation in SAR personnel, but I found nothing. 

In sad frustration, I mentioned this lack of search and rescue aviation risk management training meterials to two helicopter pilots with whom I had flown rescue missions. They both responded with the same thing: “If it does not exist, then let’s go write it!”

Mountain Rescue Association Education Basecamp

Thirty years later, the Mountain Rescue Association (MRA) now has online helicopter rescue training programmes that include learning management system (LMS) certificate-based courses.

One of the key objectives of the MRA Education Basecamp is to provide SAR teams with training materials that the teams would otherwise not be able to develop in-house

The MRA is a national association of more than 100 volunteer accredited SAR teams. Since the launch of the MRA Education Basecamp Learning Management System (LMS) at www.training.mra.org in 2016, nearly 2,400 unique users have registered. Now equipped with specialised skills brought about by this international training programme, more than 1,000 rescuers have achieved a certificate in the two helicopter safety courses alone. 

One of the key objectives of the MRA Education Basecamp is to provide SAR teams with training materials that the teams would otherwise not be able to develop in-house. Now, many SAR teams, Sheriff’s offices and Ski Patrol groups require one or more of the certificates before their rescue members can participate in live helicopter rescue trainings.

The initial training programmes offered to rescuers worldwide, at no cost, include:

  • Helicopters in SAR – Basic Level
  • Helicopters in Search and Rescue – Intermediate Level
  • Situational Awareness in Search and Rescue
  • Risks in Mountain Rescue Operations

Each of the programmes is accompanied by a hard copy guidebook that is also available for download from within the LMS course, and also on www.mra.org

SAR professionals Dave Groff and Tom Greene have been developing and launching new course content, and Costa Rican SAR leader Jose Campos recently translated the two helicopter rescue guidebooks into Spanish for our rescue colleagues in Central and South America.

The latest programme in the MRA’s Series is a discussion-based module, with webcasts serving as the course content. The programme, Psychological First Aid, is designed to provide introductory information to assist SAR personnel to gain a better understanding of operational stress injuries to which rescuers may be exposed as part of SAR activities.

Rescue and emergency response units worldwide are encouraged to explore the MRA “Education Basecamp” at www.training.mra.org

For more information on the MRA Education Basecamp resources, contact Charley Shimanski, MRA Education Director, at charley.shimanski@gmail.com.

mRA risk management couse Slide4