Can you learn to deal with the unexpected & unpredictable?

Cognitive Readiness in Search and Rescue operations: What is it? Do you have it? How do you get it?

There’s a problem with training to learn to deal with the unexpected: we simply don’t know in advance what the objectives of any training or instruction should be.

If you haven’t come across it already, Cognitive Readiness as a concept in Search and Rescue is a term that you might be about to become more familiar with. It was born of military studies into how different individuals are mentally equipped to handle fast-moving and ever-changing scenarios, and it is just starting to be applied to the world of Search and Rescue.

It describes a form of mental readiness, or preparation in a set of non-technical skills that demonstrate a capacity or predisposition for high performance in complex and unpredictable environments.

Nothing is as predictable in military operations as unpredictability. So the question of how we should prepare people, teams, and organisations for the unexpected, (which is by definition something we cannot anticipate) seems a reasonable one for military academics and theorists to be asking. The leap in the application of this thinking from the military domain to the world of Search and Rescue in all its guises, is logical too, given the related dynamic in SAR of real-world challenges, reactive problem-solving, unanticipated events, and unforeseen consequences. 

The leap in the application of this thinking from the military domain to the world of SAR is logical

This leap has been driven by a study carried out by a team from the Applied Psychology and Human Factors Group of the University of Aberdeen. Their work on behalf of the Helicopter Industry is behind the development of a new Behavioural Marker System that helps to identify (and therefore develop) aircrews’ Non-Technical Skills. (For more information see HELINOTS

Part of this study is aimed specifically at identifying the skill-sets considered to be important to Search and Rescue. In a survey which made a direct comparison between the responses of offshore transport pilots and search and rescue pilots, subjects were asked to rate which Non- Technical Skills they perceived as the most important to their respective roles. Despite the fact that Cognitive Readiness was new to them as a concept, the group of SAR pilots all immediately recognised its importance in their role, collectively rating it as the most important skill of all from a list that also included Communication, Situational Awareness, Teamwork, Leadership, Task Management, and Decision-Making. 

The study went on to identify Cognitive Readiness as a key difference between the missions of search and rescue, and offshore transport flying, concluding that it is a vital skill within search and rescue operations.

What is Cognitive Readiness?

It has been defined as,

“The mental preparation (including skills, knowledge, abilities, motivations, and personal dispositions) an individual needs to establish and sustain competent performance in complex and unpredictable environments.”

Fletcher, J.D. & Wind, A.P. (2014) Chapter 2: The Evolving Definition of Cognitive Readiness for Military Operations

More specifically, it could be said to be made up of:

  1. The ability to remove ambiguity and recognise patterns in uncertain, confusing, and chaotic situations.
  2. The ability to identify and prioritise problems and opportunities presented by these situations.
  3. The ability to devise effective responses to the problems or opportunities presented.
  4. The ability to go on to implement those responses.

In their 2020 study, Hamlet, Irving and McGregor (link) split the idea of Cognitive Readiness down into three categories:

Preparedness: the mental and physical preparation to enable pilots to respond to new tasks swiftly and effectively.

Problem-Solving: the assessment of a task from multiple perspectives in order to cope with taxing rescue conditions.

Adaptability: quick responses to a change in task focus, rescue conditions, and terrain.

Whether these skills are trainable is admittedly controversial. Certainly, they could include elements that are not trainable. However, the corollary of asserting that they are not elements that can be trained or taught is that all operators could hope for is that their recruiting/selection processes have been successful in choosing people with these innate qualities.

Do I have it? How do I get it?!

Whether or not you have these attributes, and what you can do to work on improving them, therefore seem like important questions for anyone who wants to be successful working in this domain. Academic studies on the topic have thrown up some disagreement as to exactly what components make up the idea of Cognitive Readiness. Suffice it to say, it is multi-faceted, and built upon many of the non-technical skills that will already be familiar to anybody working in aviation. These include, amongst others:

Situation Awareness

Problem Solving

Metacognition – the awareness and understanding of one’s own thought processes.




Pattern Recognition – the basis for integrating the sensory information hitting the eyes, ears etc. in working memory with the contents and patterns stored in long-term memory.



Interpersonal Skills


Critical thinking

Independent studies show – and aeronautical experience itself suggests – that there are ways of training many of these individually or collectively with respect to specific tasks or activities. However, the additional challenge of isolating Cognitive Readiness as a ‘trainable’ skillset is that, by its very nature, it has to be context free. If it were not, then we would no longer be operating in the land of the unanticipated and unexpected. Making training context free is similar in effect to the idea of studying Latin to develop developing generic learning skills that will help us understand German, solve mathematical problems, or perform other more specific activities.  

A healthy scepticism of fresh industry buzzwords might provoke some to express a sense that there is a bit of reinventing the wheel here. What separates Cognitive Readiness from previous error management/Non-technical skills acronyms such as TEM (Threat and Error Management) or CRM (Crew Resource Management)? Whilst there is still work to be done to allow Cognitive Readiness to be integrated into the sphere of error management and resource management as a whole, it is important to draw attention to the fact that the vast majority of literature and research work done worldwide in the sphere of human factors and CRM for aviation has been derived from the imperatives of the fixed wing and airline industries. Here, for the first time, are studies that are considering the specific challenges and peculiarities of Non-Technical Skills for rotary wing and Search and Rescue professionals as well.

The fact that we readily recognise the description that Cognitive Readiness makes about the challenges of unpredictability and adaptability that are demanded by our roles in SAR suggests that there is value in having a word that describes it. After all, can you properly understand a concept without a word to express it?

One thought on “Can you learn to deal with the unexpected & unpredictable?

  1. The work of APHFG is a step forward in defining behavioural markers for Helicopter Operations. Very shortly they will publish NTS & Behavioural Markers for SAR TC, probably the first ever true research into HF as it affects Technical Crew (Non Pilot Crew).
    I believe, and have discussed with APHFG the broader thinking that the SAR HeliNOTS resonate well with all Helicopter Operators involved in ‘reactive’ tasking – SAR, Police, HEMS.


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