The challenges of an aerial search can be daunting. Factors such as sea state, surface visibility and even the fatigue of the flight crew can dramatically impact the effectiveness of the search. A lone person floating in the water presents a very small target and sometimes a person cannot be seen until the aircraft is almost directly overhead. If the sea state is rough, it becomes even harder to see a victim and an aerial unit must tighten their search tracks to take into account the rougher water.
The ability to search has been greatly enhanced by the use of technology. The United States Coast Guard uses a computer program to help determine their search area and likely location of a victim. This program, known as computer assisted search planning (CASP) uses a variety of factors including tides, current weather and expected drift of the victim to designate a search pattern. When a passenger fell off a cruise ship near Florida, the CASP program predicted the most likely spot where the victim would be hours later. The victim was found in the exact grid predicted by the program. This allows not only a greater ability to save lives, it also allows for better allocation of resources.
The Incident Commander
The Incident Commander should make certain the search areas are documented. After initial searches are completed, it might be determined that secondary searches should be conducted. This is no reflection on the ability of the initial searchers. It recognizes the difficulty of these searches and the fatigue of the crew. Other concerns of the incident commander should include a helispot (landing zone) and refueling capabilities of aircraft. Precious search time can be lost if the aircraft must fly a considerable distance to refuel. If the incident requires, the establishment of an air operations branch can make aerial operations much easier and effective.
Search incidents often have significant challenges. Obviously, the quick location and medical treatment of the victims, if necessary, are crucial to the successful outcome of the search and rescue mission. The successful and effective coordination between ground and aerial units can make the difference between life and death!