Monday, October 31, 2011

Situational Awareness in Mountain Rescue Operations - Projection into the Future

The third stage of situational awareness – projection into the future – is the stage where one puts it all together.  Once the clues are interpreted, the next step is to project how that information will affect the future of the operation.

Let’s use an example of a traditional backcountry search.  Rescuers are called to a local trailhead to search for a subject who is 6 hours overdue from a planned hike.  The subject told the reporting party (his wife) that he was going fishing at a local lake on the trail.  While some rescuers are searching the trail to the lake, other rescuers also search the subject’s car, and find that his fishing equipment is still in the back seat, including his fishing license.  Using this new information, the rescuers conclude that they need to expand their search area based on the projection that the man changed his plans, and did not go fishing at the lake as expected.

An Everyday Example of Situational Awareness 
Let’s consider another example of situational awareness, one that takes place in an everyday setting.

If you want to know if it is going to rain, you don’t look for rain, you look for CLOUDS.  If you look for rain you’ll only know that rain is coming at the very moment that it arrives. Looking for rain alone would mean that you are only OBSERVING and INTERPRETING, but not PROJECTING into the future.

If, on the other hand, you instead look for clouds, then you have added PROJECTING into your situational awareness.  In that case, you are more able to anticipate rain BEFORE it arrives.

Still, even looking for clouds does not constitute the only important element that is missing if you only look for rain.  You need some training to know WHAT TYPES of clouds cause rain.  For example, a sudden build up of high cirrus clouds means something completely different than a steady accumulation of cumulonimbus clouds.  Only through training and experience can you learn this important distinction.

Visualize While En Route to a Call 
In many emergency medical training programs, students are taught the value of visualizing the scenario prior to arriving at the rescue call.  In search and rescue operations, rescuers often have an extended period of time traveling to the scene of the SAR call.  During that transport time, it can be valuable to take the clues given (e.g. the description of the rescue accident) and project into the future what kind of problems will be encountered by the rescue team.  For example, a rescuer may know that a rescue of an injured climber on the
east side of Highway 9 means that the rescue team will need to create a technical system to cross above a large creek.  While en route to the call, rescuers will already be planning in their heads the tyrolean system
necessary for the creek crossing.

Similarly, SAR field teams can talk about their pending rescue while heading into the field.  On a recent rescue of a survivor from an avalanche, rescuers were performing a technical lowering of the patient to a rock band where the helicopter could “hover load” the patient.  During that technical lowering, the helicopter crew members were sitting in their helicopter at the trailhead parking lot.  The rotors were turning, and the crew was discussing in great detail how they would do the “hot-load” of the subject.  They could have been discussing the latest basketball game, or the lovely weather, but instead they used the opportunity to brief each other on what their duties would be, and on what possible complications might occur.

Experience teaches rescuers to ANTICIPATE possible scenarios based on information provided.  Still, that same experience teaches rescuers that the information provided may be wrong.  While at work one day, an out-of-breath co-worker ran into my office and said, “Charley do you know CPR?”  I followed the co-worker to the hallway, where another staff member was lying on the ground, seemingly lifeless.  Prior to starting CPR, I checked my colleague for a pulse, and asked bystanders what happened.  They described the patient as having experienced what sounded to me like a Grand Mal seizure.  Indeed the patient was in a Post Ictal state, and was not in need of CPR.

For more information on situational awareness in mountain rescue operations, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Monday, October 24, 2011

Situational Awareness in Mountain Rescue Operations - Stage II -  Comprehension and  Interpretation of the  Relevant Information 

The second stage of Situational Awareness, “comprehension and interpretation,” requires you to have and utilize your training and experience.  Training is a key component of teaching SAR workers, but experience is the key to understanding how to best utilize that training. 

The second stage of Situational Awareness is the stage wherein one attempts to comprehend and interpret the data collected in the first stage.  While the collection of data and the perception of the relevant information are important, the comprehension and interpretation of that data can not be overlooked. The key to this stage of Situational Awareness is that it requires one to have and utilize key training and experience.  For example, a rescuer in a high mountain rescue might have already perceived that the temperature is very hot.  Still, without proper training in helicopter management, that rescuer he might not be able to interpret that the high temperatures will have an effect on the rescue team’s use of helicopter resources – since temperature has a significant effect on helicopter performance at altitude.  Without the proper training, a SAR worker might not be aware of the limitation that temperature has on the performance of helicopter assets. 

Experience is also a key factor in this stage of Situational Awareness.  While training is essential for any SAR professional, there is no substitute for experience.  It is through experience that we learn and master the  important skills associated with interpreting data that is presented in the first stage of situational awareness. 

Understanding the Clues 
In order to interpret clues, you must first understand them.  But how do you interpret clues if those clues do not make sense?  On a search for a missing hiker one summer night, a rescue professional notified the search command post that he’d found “a bunch of orange pails” in the middle of a trail while searching.  The searcher went on to say that the pails were meticulously laid out in the shape of an arrow, pointing down the trail.   The Incident Command team struggled to figure out why there would be orange pails many miles back on a remote backcountry trail.  Several minutes later, the command team asked for a clarification from the rescuer, who coincidently was a southerner with a deep southern drawl in his voice.  He was asked, “What kind of orange pails are these?”  The man replied “You know, the kind of pails you pail off an orange before you eat it!”  The man was talking about orange PEELS, but that only became evident after the command team asked more questions.  The data presented did not make sense at first, but made complete sense later, once the command team remembered that the field rescuer was from Georgia, and had a distinct southern drawl. 

Interpreting the Clues Requires Training 
Do you have sufficient experience to interpret the information that you have assembled?  Traditional training might not teach you the skills necessary.  For example, one search and rescue team trains its members on helicopter skills in a unique and different way… the rescuers are not schooled in how to help a helicopter pilot, rather they are schooled in how to BE a helicopter pilot by learning how a pilot actually FLIES a helicopter.  As such, these SAR professionals are better able to think like a pilot. 

Recognizing the Frequency of those Clues 
As mentioned earlier, one should not only pay attention to the clues themselves, but also to the frequency of clues.  This can help a rescuer ascertain whether numerous seemingly inconsequential anomalies are coming together to draw one large problem.

Stay tuned to our blog for the continuation of our discussion on Situational Awareness with Stage 3 Projection into the Future. 

For more information on situational awareness in mountain rescue operations
, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Situational Awareness in Mountain Rescue Operations Stage 1 - Perception of the Relevant Information

Yogi Berra once said, “You can observe a lot by just watching.”  Observation is the key to perception.  

In this first step of situational awareness, we are looking for clues.  These clues can come in many forms, including: 
• Sensory clues - something you see, hear, smell, touch; 
• Anticipated clues - something that comes from prior experience; and 
• Innate clues – something you just “feel in your gut.” 

In conventional search missions, for example, rescuers are looking for CLUES more than they are looking for the missing subject.  Why?  Simply because there are far more clues than there are missing subjects, and by finding and following clues, one can find the missing subject much more quickly. 

The first stage of situational awareness – perception – is arguably the most important stage.  After all, without perception of information, one cannot really comprehend, interpret and draw conclusions. Many accidents in search and rescue operations result from a series of different things happening.  There are often a number of contributing factors that, if occurring individually, might not have resulted in an accident.  Break any rescue accident down, and you will often find that there were a number of elements that came together to make that accident possible. 

In this important perception stage of Situational Awareness, rescuers need to be very attentive – not only to the occurrence of situations that are beyond their expectations, but to the frequency and number of those situations. This perception stage requires that you OBSERVE!  In order to be an effective observer, one must remain attentive.  This can be one of the greatest challenges to a search and rescue professional, as periods of  inactivity and boredom can hamper one’s ability to be an effective observer. Similarly, searchers and/or rescuers who are overworked might not be able to observe the environment around them.  This too can be a serious detriment to one’s ability to be an effective observer. 

Stay tuned to our blog for the continuation of our discussion on Situational Awareness with Stage 2 Comprehension and Interpretation of the Relevant Information.

For more information on situational awareness in mountain rescue operations
, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Situational Awareness in Mountain Rescue Operations

“Situational Awareness” is “the degree of accuracy by which one’s perception of his/her current environment mirrors reality.”  The essence of Situational Awareness is fairly simple… perception vs. reality.

For over 30 years, Situational Awareness has been studied and applied in military, civil, commercial and aerospace applications.  More and more, emergency service organizations are focusing on situational wareness as a key factor in reducing risk and increasing safety. Situational Awareness can also be looked at as a constantly evolving picture of the state of the environment.  It is the perception and comprehension of the relevant elements in an incident within a volume of time and space.  In this regard, Situational Awareness is not an event, but rather a process that only ends when the SAR incident is concluded. Data collection and interpretation.

Situational Awareness requires the human operator to quickly detect, integrate and interpret data gathered from the environment.  In the case of search and rescue operations, the “human detector" can be anything from the Incident Commander to a “field grunt.”  That is the beauty (and challenge) of situational awareness – it requires and demands awareness by all users.

In a search and rescue response, the “information” that is collected can come in many forms, including:
1. Information provided by outside sources (e.g. interviews with reporting parties, information provided by local law enforcement, etc.)
2. Information from the environment (e.g. weather)
3. Information from previous experiences (e.g. other SAR missions in the same location)

Situational awareness is also much like the Incident Command System (ICS), in that it is flexible and should grow or shrink as the SAR incident grows or shrinks.

To fully understand Situational Awareness, we need to look closely at its three important stages, the perception of the relevant information, the comprehension and interpretation of that information, and  the projection of their states into the future.

Over the next few weeks the MRA Blog will examine each of these stages in detail.

For more information on situational awareness in mountain rescue operations
, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association 

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Keep the Team Together at ALL Times

The word "team" implies a group of people working together for the benefit of the whole.  If you consider yourself part of a team and constantly stay aware of the other team members throughout your trip, especially in cases of extreme weather, accidents can be easily avoided. 

As with any team, a "team leader" should be chosen for all backcountry trips.  Your team leader must be perceptive of the individual abilities and experience of each team member.  This person must know that the only real goal for a backcountry adventure is the safe return of each party member.  The team leader need not be the most skilled mountaineer, but rather the most trusted and most respected backcountry user.

Of the hundreds of searches performed in the United States by mountain search and rescue teams each year, most are conducted for subjects who have been separated from a group of people and usually from shelter and survival equipment.  The rule is simple:  do not wander away from the team!  In Kansas, for example, roads are easily found just about everywhere.  Fly over western Colorado just once and you'll realize this is 
not true of mountainous states.

In the words of a now infamous young girl trying to find her way home, "Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore." If team members must separate from the rest of the team, they should always do so in groups of two or more.  In addition, they should carry and be skilled in the use of a map and compass.  This will reduce the risk of any individual becoming lost.  Also, make certain to mark on the map the precise location of the team. 

Be prepared, think before and stay safe!

For more information on backcountry safety, check out the Mountain Rescue Associations public education programs @

Courage - Commitment - Compassion
     Mountain Rescue Association