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 

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