Crew Resource Management for Search and Rescue Operations.


It’s a personal opinion, but I think that one of the most enduring fallacies of Search and Rescue, (and one that SAR practitioners worldwide are unlikely to be working hard to shake off!), is that it is somehow an elite branch of the helicopter world that requires a higher level of skill or ability than other kinds of flying. I think that is nonsense. Like all specialist operations it requires a high and consistent level of training in a few particular skills and disciplines, but that doesn’t mean that it is the reserve of the particularly skilled. What will set apart those who do it really well from those who just do it are not ‘flying’ skills at all, but ‘soft’ skills, non-technical skills, CRM: give it the name you will. A successful mentality in SAR requires flexibility; the ability to absorb and react to changing circumstances; take decisions, and then revisit and be willing to change those decisions; accept perspectives different to your own; take advice and even criticism; and have a certain unflappability. 

But of course these are attributes that will serve you well in any environment. In its objectives and its relevance, CRM, and how it is trained, is no different with respect to SAR than it is to any other operation. Failures in CRM; failure to use, manage, or prioritise the resources available to achieve a task within or beyond the cockpit does not result in any more critical an outcome in SAR than in any other safety critical activity. 

There is no such thing as CRM topics or training that is unique to SAR operations. 

I have run CRM training with some very experienced crews, both in SAR and non SAR. When I ask them to list as many of the 14 core topics that make up the CRM syllabus, most can’t get beyond Communication, Situational awareness, and Decision-making. Why? Because, even the most experienced tend to think of CRM first in terms of events within the aircraft, even though they know there’s more to it than that. 

SAR aircraft usually use a multi-pilot crew concept, as well as a multi-crew crew concept, where the nature of the task means that priority and leadership moves around the aircraft depending on the stage of the mission, so perhaps it requires a more developed level of teamwork and a less rigid model of leadership than normal, but what is going on in the aircraft is only a part of the picture.


This unconscious prejudice towards what used to be called ‘cockpit’ or ‘crew’ resource management ignores what is actually most likely to impact on your resource management, which is often the external factors. And what does separate SAR operations from other flying operations such as CAT/Offshore, and (arguably) even more specialist areas such as HEMS and HHO is the potential multiplicity of inputs, influences, and external factors that can affect the conduct of the mission, as well as the decision-making processes both before and during the flight.

In SAR, the bubble of potential resources, supporting services, and people that could impact on your mission tends to be much larger, and therefore exponentially more complex. These influences could include the Rescue Coordination Centre; other rescue agencies such as coastguard, police, fire service, and ambulance; the presence of the public sometimes in large number; other SAR or HEMS aircraft at the scene; or multiple vessels involved in a search or rescue at sea.

Likewise, the choice of equipment, procedures, and variety of options open to you as to how you might go about the task are more likely to be more numerous, specialised, and probably complex, than in many other operations. Do you winch or land? Do you get a vessel to make way or heave to? Does the winch rescue call for a strop, rescue litter, or stretcher? Do you use a hi-line, a single lift, or a double lift? Which way do you point the aircraft to get the best trade off between the pilot and the winch-operator’s sight references and priorities? How is the downwash affecting the rescue effort below the aircraft? In SAR there are many ways to skin a cat, and whilst some are likely to be better than others, few are likely to be the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way. 

You might also have to contend with other people’s conflicting priorities such as the fishing captain who’s more interested in his catch than disembarking an injured crew member; interagency rivalries where more than one rescue service think they are best placed to achieve the task; or the cruise liner on a tight schedule that won’t alter course. Then there are the ever changing circumstances, such as one callout I had to a man overboard at night, which while on route to the scene became a ‘we’ve found him on board, but injured’, and then when arriving overhead turned out to be a crazed sailor wielding a knife that the rest of the crew had locked in the on board freezer to cool off.

In comparison, operations such as offshore Commercial Air Transport are more tightly bound and controlled by rules and procedure. This takes a lot of the mental effort of routine decision making out of the hands of the crew. A flight is carried out within a set of reasonably defined parameters. Much of what is to be expected can be briefed beforehand and procedures that delineate the flight be followed. Even if things start to depart the script and an aircraft malfunction is experienced the checklist guides the decision-making process: if ‘A’ happens, then apply procedure ‘B’. Nothing is that clear cut in SAR, where most of the decisions will have to be weighed off against what is at stake both in the aircraft and on the ground, and even malfunction actions in a checklist can vary depending on the type of mission.

So how should this be addressed in training? Should CRM training for SAR have a different focus or different priorities than other operations? My answer is no. Why is this?

The standard EASA CRM syllabus that is followed by most operators and its 14 sub-topics are a catch-all that potentially cover every aspect of every possible operation. The way the regulations are written allows a lot of leeway for tailoring training to your particular operation, and includes very few specifics about how you should go about covering the different areas and in what depth. Unlike many things in aviation that require and value standardisation, I believe that this is a good thing when it comes to CRM. 

When I deliver training I put a lot of emphasis on tailoring it to the problems, challenges, and specific demands of the operation, so the training will naturally focus on what you do. For example, I get crews to raise what they consider to be their five key threats to safety, and we compare and contrast answers and go into them as a starting point for training, asking how we could address them as an operator, how we could improve, and what changes we could introduce. It is always interesting to see how the answers differ between the pilots in the front seat and the rear crew members. Each has very different perspectives. 

Not all operators run CRM training this way. Many have a stock syllabus that you have to sit through which is repeated time and again over the years. Even worse (in my opinion) is delivering CRM training via online courses which is the worst of all worlds. You lose the ability to sit together face to face and have those open and frank discussions about things that have happened to you and others and why. Very little true learning takes place and you lose the ability to drill down into the specific questions or problems raised by your crews.

CRM training sessions should, above all, be a forum for critically appraising yourselves, your activities and procedures; the way you operate. They are a chance to get together at least once a year and ask ‘what did we get wrong and why?’, ‘what could we do better?’, ‘how can we develop?’, and ‘where are we getting left behind?’ They are a time and place to raise safety concerns and propose changes. In doing this you will find discussions delve naturally into areas such as communication, culture, workload management, teamwork, situational awareness, and all the rest of the things that EASA require us to talk about.

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