I Can’t Hear You….Repeat Your Last!
Communication. Webster defines communications as: a process by which information is exchanged between individuals through a common system of symbols, signs, or behavior. It’s the proverbial light switch though, you tend to either have it or you don’t. There is no kinda-sorta. In aviation operations, no matter the discipline of your mission or the name on the side of your aircraft, communications are vital. Sometimes communications are automated, such as your aircraft GPS tracker relaying your position every 2 minutes or a video downlink sending an over-the-top view of a pursuit, fire scene or large public event. More often than not, however, communications require an intentional action such as pressing the transmit button on your radio and verbally conveying a message. It is these “manual” communications, that require a bit more direct interaction of the players, that always seem to come up short. If you’ve been in this business for any amount of time you know that while some situations may be a bit more forgiving if communications are not as dialed in as they should, there are others that are the exact opposite.
Enter plan-b. Like many of us in this industry, our paths to where we currently are was not a straight one. I am no exception. In my previous life doing search and rescue, we always had direct communications with our aircraft via radio. Should this fail we had pre-determined hand and head signals that we would default to. Flying law enforcement missions back in the day, we were not as lucky. While it is purely conjecture on my part, it is plausible that air assets dedicated to one particular jurisdiction (the LAPD’s, NYPD’S and Vegas Metros) have an established comms plan with common radio frequencies and means of communication determined, ie satellite phones, cellular phones, etc. (although I have flown missions where members of common agencies could not talk to their own people).
My unit, unfortunately, was more often the latter. Covering two states and countless jurisdictions, it was not uncommon to be involved in an operation where we did not have direct communication with the boots on the ground. In these instances, messages were frequently relayed through an intermediary. When flying search and rescue patterns, this may (emphasis) not be overly detrimental to your mission however when actively looking for an armed suspect one can see where this real life telephone game may be a bit more problematic. While I can recall countless times that I was able to spot a suspect on camera before officers on the ground were, the most memorable instance was the occasion we weren’t able to advise the location of a suspect, of course buried in a grassy field, and an officer had to literally step on the person before they were found. Luckily nobody was hurt but it was the old elementary school telephone game playing out in front of me in real time; messages provided to the command post were not always relayed and the ones that were lacked accuracy, timeliness and the immediacy in the tone of my voice. To this day I can still see the picture from the FLIR screen in my head thinking I was going to witness the moment when one of my brothers was not going to make it home.
Had we been able to talk directly to the search party on the ground, rather than through an individual at the command post, the situation could have come to a conclusion in a slightly less dramatic, and relatively safe(-ish), manner.
In the HEMS world, having a comms plan is just as important, especially for those of us that do scene flights. A GPS coordinate, or distance and heading, is great but sometimes lacks the specificity needed when looking for an exact spot, especially if it’s buried amongst 50 foot pine trees. It was just the other week that I found myself enroute to a scene flight with a landing zone which none of us were familiar with. Through utilization of a predetermined radio frequency (my state has declared a particular frequency for comms between HEMS and ground assets….no more hand mashing different frequencies into your radio depending on who you’re interfacing with) we spoke with the landing zone commander, realized we were a few miles south of where we were supposed to be and were able to be directed in with no more difficulty.
So…..after all my babbling and war stories, what’s my point? My points are these:
1.) Make sure communications are at the forefront of every pre-plan, mission plan and operational briefing. Don’t leave it to chance or something that you’ll just figure out. In many instances your aircraft and crew are being utilized as a force multiplier and able to gather information that those on the ground cannot. What good are you if you cannot relay the information that you are gathering? Shooting from the hip is ok in some situations but why do it if you don’t have to?
2.) Make sure your comms plan is as streamlined as possible. As with most things, the more steps involved in a process, the more points of failure that inherently exist (never forget your elementary school telephone game);
3.) Make sure you exercise your comms plan in advance. There’s nothing like executing “the plan” during a real-life scenario only to find out that it does not work as intended and potentially vital information is never received by those most in need of it;
4.) Realize that many requesting agencies are not accustomed to working with aircraft and such a request may constitute a significant event for them. Yeah they were listening to you during their annual LZ safety training eight months ago, but how much of that information was retained since then? As a unique asset, when getting initial dispatch information or developing an operational plan, it may be advantageous to advise the requesting agency of your needs with regards to communications, ie you will speak with ground assets on the statewide SAR 1 channel (make sure they actually have the designated channel available first before implementing such a plan) rather than a task saturated incident commander trying to pick a channel;
5.) Be prepared for plan-a to fail and have one, if not several, alternate plans in place and ready to execute; and
6.) Above all else, make sure your plan works for you. Do you like what somebody else is doing? Steal their wheel and paint it your own color! I’ve always said, there is only one original operational procedure or protocol out there and everything else is an adaptation of that.