Researching Continuous Professional Development for conducting water and flood search and rescue (SAR) using small rescue craft and completing the ‘reading list’ produced from this research is a challenge. It is a continuous process of obtaining relevant data to assist in mitigating the risks of operating small search and rescue boats (RBs), especially RBs operating in high-energy floodwaters brought on by climate change. With the commensurate training, tactics and kit requirements, this needs constant effort to aid development.
As a small company we are always considering ways to improve the kit (e.g. Covid-19 PPE for use by boat operators), its use in SAR and the tactics taught within our training products. In late autumn, my professional to-do list at our academy lengthened with the need to write up our boat-platform-based ‘Drone Search and Rescue’ research projects and review and update our ‘Water and Flood Rescue Boat Operator’ (Module 4) manual. This manual is based on technical information to support a rescue boat helm/operator course delegate to give them background and knowledge when developing themselves in obtaining compliance with the syllabus for the Module 4: Water & Flood Rescue Boat Operator (RBO) qualification. This is a module set by the UK Government’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), ‘Flood Rescue Concept of Operations’.1 This is the standard qualification for inland rescue-boat operators required by most UK Fire and Rescue Services and voluntary agencies for their specialist SAR personnel operating rescue boats powered by engines. Although heavily rooted in flood-boat operations, it has sound learning outcomes with a prerequisite for delegates to hold Defra Module 3 – Water & Flood Rescue Technician and RYA Level 2 Powerboat Handling competencies.
The individuals attending courses will demonstrate their ability to perform skills completed during the RYA Level 2 National Powerboat Course together with the broad headings of comprehensive competencies listed below to include:
- Demonstrate boat handling in swift waters
- Paddle boat handling
- Boat handling and Search and Rescue during darkness and poor lighting conditions. Which itself includes:
- Practical application of skills in darkness and poor light
- Demonstrate ability at keeping a proper lookout and identifying lit and unlit marks and hazard(s) at night
- Students to conduct a Search and Rescue scenario during darkness
Defra suggests a minimum delivery of 28 hours over a minimum of four days.
Driven by our research, jointly with rescue services, from the early 2000s (the findings of which were fed into the first ‘Flood Rescue Concept of Operations’) and given what we believe to be the high-risk environment for all rescue boat operations, our guided learning hours preference is for a minimum of 35 hours over a minimum of five days. We also prefer to develop operators who have either some experience of or a qualification similar to our Rescue Boat Crew Role. The Crew Role Overview enables the crew to assist the RBO (helm) in the safe running of a rescue boat during SAR operations or training in line with the responsibilities of the RBO set by the Defra Module/Level 4 role and to ensure effective provision of the tactical water rescue capability within either a flood environment or SAR environment. Practical experience has shown that even with the five days we allocate, planning and communication for those days is down to the minutest detail. This is necessary to achieve all that is required in competency levels. The course is focused on the practical skillset competencies; therefore, it is vital to be supported by up-to-date technical information – hence the continuous manual reviews.
Our view is that small-boat SAR operations in the high energy of floods are hazardous in the extreme. Operators need knowledge and the opportunity to develop professionally and be given fresh knowledge in suitable techniques in this the most demanding of environments, to mitigate some of the risks involved. There is no such thing as ‘no risk’ in boat operations. RBs and their standards for construction, operations and the commensurate risk assessments need to be of the highest order. Hence, following our due diligence research to understand the issues, we have held Floodfighters Masterclasses, which include Beachmaster techniques for large-scale multi-boat rescue operations in dynamic waters and conditions unobtainable in the UK. Hundreds of rescue technicians have attended over nearly a decade and a half, with the outstanding assistance of Charlotte Fire Department and North Carolina Emergency Management, USA (and elsewhere in the world).
RB operators are trained in vital techniques like ‘J-turns/power turns’, whereby power turns are used to move the rescue boat when there is minimal space available or to regain control quickly against the flow. They must learn to use high power and their crew to weight shift on command – note power NOT speed: our instructors constantly say the mantras of ‘Anyone can drive fast; slow is pro!’ The J-Turn and other boat control techniques are used for ‘breaking in or out’2 of a high-energy flow such as:
- Ferry glide
- Power turn/J-turn
- Holding position
These required wide-ranging research and information from many contributors to locate, evaluate, develop for use and encapsulate to pass on in training (the information was also taken into account in our RB designs). To support and widen our information capture and understanding, membership of Royal Institute of Naval Architects and International Association of Fire Chiefs is held. We became a Royal Yacht Association (RYA), Recognized Training Centre with RYA Qualified Powerboat Instructors. We have obtained flying qualifications for our staff for SAR drone research and operations, and we use an Operations Manual that details safety information and operational procedures required to satisfy the UK Civil Aviation Authority’s Permission for Commercial Operations.
Severe floods are made more likely by the more extreme weather patterns caused by long-term global climate change. Therefore, a constant need exists for this process of applied research and review, such as in:
- our latest Drone SAR course development projects for improving SAR, including using drones from small craft:
- UAV capable of fusing 4K colour visible and thermal images, benefiting rescuers with information not visible in thermal images (the displayed image is a fusion of the information from the two cameras/inputs) or
- drones capable of producing data for improving incident intelligence (and pre-planning) through rapid on-scene photogrammetry, mapping and modelling.
- developing remote online learning and making instructor-led technical information available to our students such as:
- that produced by the Jones and Bartlett Learning resources of ‘Navigate 2 Advantage Access for Water Rescue Principles and Practice to NFPA 1006/1670: Surface, Swiftwater, Dive, Ice, Surf and Flood. Second Edition.
Sadly, the reading load increased with the report on the investigation of the collision between two fire and rescue service boats resulting in one fatality on the River Cleddau, Milford Haven, Wales on 17 September 2019.3 (The boats were from Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service – MWWFRS.)
To quote Regulation 5 of the UK’s Merchant Shipping Regulations: ‘The sole objective of the investigation of an accident under the Merchant Shipping (Accident Reporting and Investigation) Regulations 2012 shall be the prevention of future accidents through the ascertainment of its causes and circumstances. It shall not be the purpose of an investigation to determine liability nor, except so far as is necessary to achieve its objective, to apportion blame.’
The report’s Synopsis said:
‘At about 1125 on 17 September 2019, two fire and rescue service boats – a 4.7m Zodiac Milpro inflatable boat and a 6.4m Delta rigid inflatable boat – were in collision while undertaking boat training and familiarisation on the River Cleddau near Milford Haven, Wales. The collision resulted in one of the firefighters who was taking part in the training on board the Zodiac, being struck by the Delta RIB and sustaining fatal injuries. The collision occurred because both boats were operating at speed and carrying out un-coordinated manoeuvres in the same stretch of the river. The Delta RIB’s helmsman attempted to pass between the Zodiac and the shoreline as his boat exited a large turn made at speed. The Zodiac’s helmsman, initially unaware of the Delta RIB approaching, turned his boat sharply to port as part of his training manoeuvres, which resulted in the boats heading towards each other. The subsequent action taken by both boats to avoid a collision was unsuccessful.
The MAIB investigation found that the accident could have been avoided had the training activities been properly planned. Furthermore:
- No-one was in overall charge of the training and familiarisation activities, so they were not properly managed, briefed or communicated between the crews of both boats.
- The operation of the boats did not adhere to the requirements of the local standard operating procedures or risk assessments.
- The generic risk assessment for boat operations was inadequate.
- The Fire and Rescue Services in the United Kingdom did not operate boats to a common standard or code of practice when not employed on flood rescue duties.’
The report also lists the many actions taken by Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service in response – space precludes quoting the list but see Section 4 of the Report.
In its recommendations the report included:
‘The National Fire Chief’s Council (NFCC) has been recommended to adopt a nationwide standard of boat operations for all craft capable of being operated at sea by any fire and rescue service across the United Kingdom (2020/133).’
The report observes that most RBs used by the UK’s FRS comply to the ‘Flood Rescue Concept of Operations’ (ConOps) specification, which specifies that they have:
- Minimum capacity to drive upstream against 10mph flow whilst carrying six persons.
- Prop guarded.
- Ancillary equipment:
- Means to light the vessel for navigation purposes to comply with IRPCS. This may be a temporary low technical method.
- Anchor and anchor line.
- Fuel containers to enable 8 hours of activity.
- Attachment points for tethers.
- 4 x paddles (minimum 3 paddles in boat).
- Towing equipment suitable for boats.
- All equipment must be able to be secured in the boat in case of capsize.
Given these somewhat ‘lightweight’ specifications of the ConOps, there is an opportunity here to remedy them and improve FRS rescue-boat operations. When the nationwide standard of boat operations is prepared by the NFCC, we suggest account is taken of MGN 466 The Rescue Boat Code of Practice for Open Rescue Boats of less than 15m in length, UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA).4 This is particularly because of its formal risk-assessment philosophy, i.e. the ‘Failure Mode, Effect and Criticality Analysis’ (FMECA) process, a holistic code that’s not just about the kit; operational procedures are included too. Although published in 2013, after 11 years in preparation, this code stands the test of time.
As can be seen, obtaining relevant professional developmental information to assist in mitigating the risks of operating small rescue boats remains challenging, and always lengthens the ‘due diligence’ reading list for all concerned with SAR boats.
- For a copy of the ‘Flood Rescue Concept of Operations’ see: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/flood-rescue-concept-of-operations-2019
- ‘Breaking out’ is the term used when leaving a faster, stronger current and entering a slower, weaker current; ‘Breaking In’ is the term used when leaving a slower, weaker current and entering a faster, stronger current.
- Published by the UK’s Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) – Report No 17/2020 November 2020. Crown Copyright 2020.