Emergencies in a state!

The Background

During a chat with a now retired airline pilot, the subject of air accidents and the capabilities of the emergency services came up.

Discussion included an accident involving two military aircraft, one German, the other American, that managed to find themselves (unbeknown to each other) on the same flight level over the seas off the coast of Namibia - and sadly collided at almost right angles. It was purely a matter of timing with each plane under different control authorities that caused this.

There were 3 confirmed reports by separate commercial airlines of SOS messages from the scene on the airband emergency frequency. This clearly indicated, unbelievable as it may appear, there were survivors.

It's what followed that was horrific!

Firstly it took the various authorities 36 hours to sort themselves out and to finally grant the South African Airforce and National Sea Rescue Institute permission to operate within the borders and coastal areas of Namibia. Granted, the SAAF were available almost immediately after the incident, the delay was purely through politics.

Thinking things could not get worse, they actually did. The weather turned and played a severe part in hampering any chance of rescue (although this could have been avoided as the previous days had good weather).

The real sin was level of telecommunications skills of the various parties involved in the rescue. My radios were permanently tuned to their communications during the rescue and will always remember one pilot asking "can anyone tell me on what frequency the ship I can see will be working?". Many minutes passed and still no-one could. The tension became overbearing and could just not contain it any longer and hit the button and blurted out "two-zero-eight-two, you stupid twits". The pilot heard the frequency and the comment!!

Although the pilot had the decency to thank this mystery voice, it still didn't remove the frustration. In order to explain this frustration at the time we need to go back in time to about a year before this tragedy.

I have an interest in air accidents after having myself fallen out of the skies. Being a radio ham too I married the two interests and joined a team that devoted itself to disaster emergency communications, known in South Africa as HAMNET. We even had a little slogan:

Ironically, only days after speaking about this to the retired pilot I was digging through some old papers and found a debriefing we gave to a crowd of guys who believed they were the 'bees knees' in search and rescue. We had been invited to take part in an exercise of a simulated aircraft accident somewhere in the rocky mountains of SA. Involved were the Mountain Rescue Team of the Mountain Club of SA, the SAAF (providing the helicopter), and HAMNET. The central control was at the main international air traffic control centre, and an on-site command post and on-site coordinators from the various groups at the crash site. All these required telecommunications, this being HAMNET's function.

Following is the report-back we presented. While reading it, especially the last part containing some suggestions, a blinding question keeps popping up "did anyone learn from the exercise?". My thought is "No". Hams who specialise in telecommunications during emergencies are just that, specialists.

In every major rescue debriefing there are still reports about poor communications, but in none is mentioned about having enlisted any specialist help. The state of communications during emergencies is still as bad as it ever was - and will remain that way until the authorities open their ears.


General set-up time:
It became a personal challenge of one of the HAMNET operators to see how long it would take to set up the emergency radio station at control centre. Arriving at the gate at 06h15, battling to get through because of a glitch with the permits, an antenna wire breaking in the haste, and a few other minor problems, the station was operational at 07h00 (some will say 07h02). This could still be improved if a permanent antenna were to be allowed and erected on site and then access gained on a regular basis for testing and maintenance.

Installed HF equipment:
Although a HF transceiver was installed at control centre, it was not usable by HAMNET because it lacked the lower sideband feature required for use on the lower amateur frequencies. When later tested on another frequency it did not have a 'clean' audio output making reception difficult. This could possibly be improved by using a headset rather than the speaker/mic arrangement.

Use of UTC:
This is no problem for a ham as most communications is done using UTC when talking to, or setting up further contacts with others around the world. Often a ham who does a lot of long distant contacts on a regular basis will keep his logbook in UTC and not local time. It might be advisable to have a notice drawn up stating "All times logged in UTC" and placed above a large digital clock (obviously set to UTC) installed in a visible place in the control room.

Lack of Operational Progress/Status:
The point at which the 'operation' was at was a mystery. Senior officials always had to ask the emergency operators what was happening and how far the operation had progressed. This is easily rectified with the use of a large whiteboard and a person who's task it is to gather the latest info from all parties and to write this up for ALL to see.

Speed of Communications:
It was commented by a number of monitoring stations how quickly and accurately details were being transmitted by the control centre. It clearly emphasised how care should be taken not to involve persons who are not geared up and/or trained for such operations. At least have one very experienced staff at each station. It was noticed how a hasty decision was taken by the operator at the accident site to hand the mic over to the On-Scene Commander in order to relieve pressure off of himself.

Shortwave (HF) Communications:
"HF communications offers a number of advantages" was proved in this exercise. Parties close to one another had communications comparable to VHF, but being on HF allowed the control centre to be privy to the information without the need for relaying.

Airforce Helicopter on Frequency:
It is believed that this was the most powerful part of the exercise. ALL parties were on the same operating frequency thus there were no delays in getting messages to the correct people and no chance of the messages being 'modified' via 'relaying'.

Range of Disciplines at Control:
An advantage that was noticed at the control centre was the ability of one of the HAMNET operators to understand the medical reports that came from the accident scene. This advantage became evident when it was requested by the Senior Mission Controller what the injuries were and with what ease it was repeated and interpreted into plain English when required.

Incorrect Use and Lack of Radio Terminology:
It (again) became evident the confusion caused amongst other parties by the use of of ham style terms and communications within operations such as these, e.g. airforce being asked to QSY! This happened the other way round too when the airforce pilot asked for a radio check on a new 'foxtrot'. Although not questioned at the time, the pilot would liked to have been made aware of why he should use the helicopter registration rather than the mission number. This is owing to the fact that he could have a mission number representing the callsign of a rare country heard on the ham bands and may cause a 'pile-up' with other hams trying to talk to him.

Professionalism of the Airforce Communications Procedure:
This should happen more often, that is, subjecting hams to a most professional communications procedure as adopted by most pilots. It did not go unnoticed that the pilot greeted a woman HAMNET operator the first time he spoke to her. We need to instil the culture of "sir" and "ma'am" during such operations amongst the amateur fraternity. Some will say this is not the way hams operate, however, it does create an atmosphere conducive to efficiency.

No Voice Log to fall back on:
It became very apparent during the exercise that there was no voice log tape to fall back on should there have been any form of a query (should this have been the real disaster, queries could have led to litigation).

Possible Improvements:

  • Get more technical staff to the crash site who have facilities to 'patch' various parties together e.g. airband to HF.

  • Run a course for interested and committed persons on aviation terminology and procedures

  • Run radio procedure 'exercises' and workshops on a regular basis. This could be done from centres around the country using the very thing we need to practice onů. radio

  • Have a voice log line available for other parties. HAMNET to ensure availability of equipment capable of giving a voice log line output of both transmitted and received signals.

  • Get a more visible clock (preferably digital) in the control centre and then set for the time standard to be used.

  • Install a large whiteboard for status updates and info.

  • Install permanent antennas (HF, VHF & UHF) at the control centre for use by other parties e.g. HAMNET.

  • Have all installed transceivers upgraded for lower sideband use allowing HAMNET immediate operation until more suitable equipment installed. Also get a headset arrangement installed.

  • Marc Dekenah

    © 12.05.02