By Gary Trudeau, 2004
The best way to handle an emergency is to be prepared before one occurs.
The integration of safety into the fun of flying has always been a high priority of USHPA. We have standards for how and what we teach, and a rating system with special skill sign-offs to help keep new pilots as safe as possible while they gain experience. We even have standards for safety requiring the use of helmets and reserve parachutes. But accidents do happen, and in an emergency situation it is helpful to have standards and procedures outlining what to do after an emergency has happened. Recently some members of the board of directors have taken up this issue with rescue squads and search and rescue personnel and have formulated a set of emergency procedures that address the categories of preparedness for site, pilot, and search and rescue.
Site preparedness: We all know the basic information about our sites like ratings needed, and whether helmets and reserve chute are required. But when an incident happens, this isn't the information that helps deal with the emergency. What is important are the site specific details-launch and landing location and elevation, names of access roads, radio frequency for local emergency crew contact, for example. The safety procedures recommend that this information be clearly posted at launch and in the landing zone. In an ideal situation this would be a permanent, mounted sign with handouts. This may not be feasible at all sites but the local club can come up with what will work for them and the landowners.
The information that should be posted on the signs and in the handouts includes site protocols, general information such as required or recommended skill ratings and safety equipment, and maps including street names and addresses, and specific direction to non-addressable places (launches and landing fields). Many emergency response crews use GPS's and would be able to navigate quickly to a launch or LZ if given the coordinates, so these should be included. If the emergency crews are not GPS-equipped, someone should meet them at a designated spot to guide them to the accident site. We also recommend posting emergency phone numbers. In most cases it will be 911 but might not be for all areas.
Getting in contact with pilots can be the most important first step in an emergency. It is recommended that local pilots program into their radios one or two emergency radio frequencies; we suggest 151.625 (USHPA 1) and 146.520. The first, 151.625, is one of USHPA's licensed business band frequencies that most USHPA members already have programmed into their radios. The second, 146.520, is the national simplex frequency and can be used by any licensed ham radio operator, and will not interfere with any radio repeater in the country. Both of these frequencies may be used by anyone in the event of an emergency.
A copy of these emergency procedures should be available on-site so anyone can refer to them if needed. Having this information on a handout is a good idea, so pilots can have it on their person if they are not near one of the posted signs. In addition to information, every site should have a rescue kit. This kit should be kept out of the weather and in a knapsack or something easily carried to a remote location, and should include rope, water, flashlight, compass, topographical maps, first aid supplies, space blanket, folding saw, and anything that might be site- or incident-specific.
Pilot preparedness: Knowing and doing some simple little things can make a big difference if a situation occurs. First, every pilot should be aware of general information and emergency procedures, and know and follow all the site protocols, before, during and after flying.
Second, each pilot should carry a few safety-related items and know how to use them. Of course you should always fly with a helmet and a reserve parachute. In addition, you should carry a radio, let others know what frequency you are going to use, and program your radio so you can easily tune into the emergency frequencies if needed. Having a GPS and knowing how to use it along with your radio will facilitate a rescue. The next few items are for your benefit if the emergency involves you. Dental floss is strong and compact, and can be lowered down to bring back up a rope in the event you are trapped above your rescuer. A whistle is also small and can be heard a lot farther away (and takes less effort) than yelling if you are injured. A short length of rope can allow you to tie yourself into a tree until help arrives. A mobile phone programmed with you friends' phone numbers will allow you to contact them, or them to contact you, in an emergency.
Two last tips: When flying XC, try to make radio contact with someone every 20 minutes or so. This way searchers will have an idea where to look for you if you come up missing. Finally, get some sort of CPR and first aid training. Prompt first aid maybe the thing that saves your friend's life.
Search and rescue preparedness: The first step is realizing there is an emergency involving a pilot. Stay calm and don't put yourself at risk. You are no good to your friend if you get injured yourself. Once an emergency situation is recognized, every pilot should tune their radio to one of the site-designated emergency frequencies and check in. Someone needs to take charge, and everyone else should follow the lead of that person, who will coordinate everything until the rescue is complete.
There are four questions that must be answered in order to determine how to handle the rest of the situation.
First: Is there going to be a delay of more than five minutes to make contact with the pilot, either by radio or through another person?
If you can make contact with the pilot, keep him or her calm. If the pilot is injured or might be in need of rescue, recommend to the pilot to stay in place, tie themselves in if in a tree or on a cliff, and wait for help to arrive. Try to get as much information about the pilot's situation as possible. Include things like GPS coordinates, injuries, and any special situation that might be involved like tree landing or power lines involved. Someone should stay in contact with the injured pilot, but remember the injured person's radio battery life. This could be an issue if the search and rescue takes a while.
If no one can make contact with the pilot, things become a little more difficult. Locating the pilot is very important. If it can be safely done, someone can fly over the downed pilot and get a GPS fix on his or her approximate location. Assess the pilot's situation and relay this information to the person in charge. GPS coordinates, extent of injuries and specific details needed for the rescue are all very important.
Second: Are the pilot's injuries severe enough to require medical attention?
Third: Are there any circumstances requiring professionally-trained search and rescue personnel? These circumstances would include the pilot having landed in water, trees, power lines, or on a cliff.
Fourth: Are there too few people available on-site to handle the situation?
If you answer yes to any of these questions, the person in charge needs to activate Emergency Management System (EMS, 911 or the site-specific emergency phone numbers). If you answer no to all of these questions, this is probably a situation that pilots can handle.
Recovery requiring EMS assistance: The person in charge has evaluated the situation and determined that EMS should be called. The person in charge must make the call to EMS, the sooner the better so the pilot will receive proper care. A few points about calling EMS: When you are calling from a mobile phone, EMS does not automatically know where you are calling from. So, first identify the town and state, then relay any pertinent information. This way EMS will know who they need to send to handle the situation.
The person in charge needs to designate a location to meet EMS personnel. Once EMS is on the scene, the person in charge turns over control of the situation to the EMS personnel. The person in charge should also find how pilots can assist EMS and integrate our special situation into their emergency procedures. All rescues should be left for EMS to handle-they constantly train for these situations and know the best way to handle them with minimal input from us. The injured pilot's safety is the most important thing here, so don't let your ego get in the way.
If search and rescue is required, talk to EMS about the dangers of using a helicopter in the vicinity of gliders. It might be better to use a fixed wing aircraft instead of a helicopter. If a helicopter is required, make certain the helicopter pilots know not to fly over any gliders in the air or on the ground. All gliders on the ground need to be secured or moved when a helicopter is present.
When EMS response is not indicated by the four qualifying questions: In a situation that we pilots can handle without EMS assistance, the designated person in charge coordinates recovery, with all pilots assisting as needed. Any searches should be done in teams of at least three pilots. All should have radios and each should be tuned to a different frequency, two radios to the emergency frequencies and the third to the frequency of the injured pilot. Each team should have a GPS and know how to use it. Once you find the pilot you can radio the other rescuers your location. Remember to store and report your GPS coordinates before you enter the woods or difficult terrain. That way you won't need to be rescued. Carry water and a rescue kit. Note the time of the day and weather. Recovery may take a while. Are you going to need warm clothes, flashlights, or any other special gear?
When you find the pilot, administer first aid that you have been trained for. If the pilot is unconscious or you suspect a spinal injury, don't remove the helmet or move the pilot in any way. Remember, EMS can be called at any time when you realize the situation has changed. The person in charge is responsible to document the incident and report it to the regional director.
No matter where our members fly throughout the country, standardized emergency procedure should help minimize the risk to them after an incident has occurred. We hope that by standardizing emergency procedures everywhere, it will be easier for pilots to know how to respond, because the procedures will be the same as at your home flying site. We believe that standardized emergency procedures could also be a valuable tool for pilots trying to open a new site. Many landowners of potential sites will require emergency procedures to be in place before they allow flying.
Local clubs need to integrate these procedures at their flying sites and we need to get these procedures into the hands of every pilot. Included on the dust cover of this magazine, you will find a credit card-size cut out. This is a flowchart version of the search and rescue portion of the article. This allows every member to have a copy of these standardized procedures with them to refer to in case of an emergency. All this information in outline form, along with the credit card-size flowchart, is available on the USHPA Web site. USHPA is also planning on mailing the credit card-size flowchart with membership renewals.
Now when an incident occurs, you and everybody you're flying with will know the best way to handle the situation and minimize the risk to everyone involved.