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September/October 2009

Saving the Lost and Found

Committee F32 Sets Standards for Search and Rescue

When hikers go missing in the mountains, when children are lost in the woods, when an Alzheimer’s patient disappears, and when urban disaster strikes, search and rescue teams are called to action. They range from volunteer teams characterized by the environment they serve — alpine, wilderness, desert, cave and water — to fire department, law enforcement, state and national park service, and still other teams that work with dogs, or on horseback or mountain bikes. All have the same goal of finding victims and safely returning them home. Who or what type of team responds to an incident depends on the authority with jurisdiction in the area where the incident occurs.

The broad range of environments and the uniqueness of each situation requires rescuers to be independent, resourceful and have a variety of skills — all of which pose challenges and opportunities for developing SAR standards.

Forming Committee F32

The National Association for Search and Rescue was well aware of the difficulties of developing standards when it first considered the task more than two decades ago.

“ASTM made a presentation to the board, and we realized it was foolish to try to write our own standards when ASTM already had a good process for doing that,” recalls committee member Steve Hudson, who then served as a NASAR director. He’s now president of Pigeon Mountain Industries, an SAR equipment manufacturer in Georgia, as well as deputy director of emergency management for Walker County, Georgia.

NASAR’s awareness of the challenges of producing standards eventually led to the formation in 1988 of ASTM International Committee F32 on Search and Rescue, which continues to meet twice a year in conjunction with the NASAR Conference and the International Technical Rescue Symposium. The committee’s ongoing goal is to create standards for well-equipped and well-trained rescuers who can perform their missions efficiently and safely.

Volunteer Volunteers

F32 is unusual among ASTM International committees in that many of its members volunteer for ASTM work and serve as volunteers in their field, making them “volunteer volunteers.” In addition to a variety of rescue team participants — from medical clinicians to expert rock climbers — the committee has included representatives from the U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Civil Air Patrol, and emergency medical services agencies. Members serve on one or more of three technical subcommittees. Ask them to highlight key standards and they will note that each of the current 42 standards is crucial, depending on the type of search or rescue it addresses.

“If it’s a high-angle rescue, the carabiner test method standard [F19561] is crucial because you want to be sure you’re using equipment strong enough for the job,” says John McKently, a reserve commander with the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and a 35-year veteran with the Montrose, Calif., search and rescue team. On the other hand, explains McKently, “Knowing whistle signals is crucial when you’re in a life or death situation where your radios don’t work,” and here is where ASTM F1768, Guide for Using Whistle Signals During Rope Rescue Operations, comes in.

While new government regulations were introduced to improve emergency preparedness and response procedures after Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, Committee F32 was years ahead in developing standards. For example, F1422, Guide for Using the Incident Command System Framework in Managing Search and Rescue Operations — based on a concept originally conceived by the U.S. Forest Service — preceded the current National Incident Management System, which provides a template for managing all types of incidents.

“The Federal Emergency Management Agency now requires any group that receives federal funds to have NIMS training,” notes Hudson. And even though F32 committee members favor such training, they bristle at standards written by hired contractors versus their own SAR colleagues with extensive field experience.

Developing Field-Tested Standards

Among the initial standards developed by Committee F32 were those that address hardware. These standards ensure that rescuers use equipment that performs as expected and needed. Those characteristics are especially important when the lives of both victim and rescuer hang by the strength of a rope dangling off the side of a mountain.

For example, if they follow ASTM International equipment standards, SAR personnel know how to inspect a kernmantle life safety rope or select a carabiner that has been produced for SAR, and not recreational, uses. They also know how to choose appropriate communications systems for rescues in confined spaces, understand common terminology for labeling and specifying climbing and mountaineering equipment and water rescue personal flotation devices, and use the correct procedures for testing ropes and other rescue systems and equipment.

“We develop equipment standards in response to the needs of the industry,” says Loui McCurley, a longtime member of Committee F32, a Colorado Alpine Rescue Team volunteer and vice president of Pigeon Mountain Industries Inc. Proposed new equipment standards under development by Subcommittee F32.01 on Equipment, Testing and Maintenance include establishing the appropriate strength for anchorages used in rope rescue training facilities (WK23352) and developing an ASTM test method for rescue litters (WK20098).

“The only existing standard for rescue litters is a military one that doesn’t test how a litter is used in a real rescue situation,” explains McCurley. She would also like to see standards for a new water rescue device that she describes as “a cross between a throw rope, carabiner and grappling hook” and new standards for testing ropes made from high-tech fibers such as Kevlar, which perform differently from nylon and polyester.

Skills Certification

Guides for inspecting ropes and using common SAR terminology appear among the standards developed by Subcommittee F32.03 on Personnel, Training and Education, although the subcommittee's main objective is to write standards that are used to certify SAR personnel.* Over the past 21 years, the subcommittee has written standards for performing water, underwater, ice and land search and rescue. Two more recent standards, F2751, Guide for Training of Support Level Land Rescue Team Member (LRT-Support) Member, and F2752, Guide for Training for Level I Rope Rescue (R1) Rescuer Endorsement, support FEMA’s effort to identify SAR resources throughout the country. The standards establish baseline training for land and rope rescue operations in wilderness, mountainous and urban environments.

Subcommittee F32.02 on Management and Operations has developed training standards for dispatchers and land SAR members, plus SAR dogs and their handlers. The subcommittee also promotes techniques and processes to increase the efficiency and safety of SAR operations. For example, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, FEMA teams used F1584, Practice for Marking Buildings During Disaster Search Operations, and F1767, Guide for Forms Used for Search and Rescue.

Other standards concerning basic operational techniques include a phonetic system to ensure clarity when communicating in adverse conditions (F1583); visual signals used by SAR team members on the ground to direct rescue aircraft (F1591); and symbols, markings and grids for land search maps used in situations such as the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster over Texas (F1846 and F2099).2

“We’re trying to achieve consistency and fine-tune techniques in the SAR market so that people will work to a certain standard,” explains Robert Womer, who has been a firefighter and paramedic for 29 years and works as an associate with Rock-N-Rescue, a Pennsylvania-based SAR equipment company. “We need dispatchers to know what kind of information is needed for SAR — whether a person is just down the road, in a snow bank at 10,000 feet or in a cornfield, and whether a situation is likely to last a couple hours or several days. We need rescuers from Colorado and Texas to work comfortably side by side whether they’re communicating with each other or doing a grid search.”3

Proposed management and operations standards involve skills, training and procedures for horse-mounted SAR missions; whistle signals for water rescue operations (WK15283); river/flood/swift water rescuer certification (WK15284); and new training for land search team members (WK23355 and WK24699).

Progress and Problems

There have been notable improvements in SAR over the past two decades, says Hudson. “People on teams are increasingly cross-trained to step into each other’s roles, and there’s more local SAR expertise than there used to be because there are more classes and opportunities to acquire new skills and share information.”

But Committee F32 still struggles to disseminate its standards and combat misconceptions about its objectives, especially among independently minded volunteers from geographically diverse areas.

“Standards don’t receive as much attention as they probably should from volunteers devoting their free time to SAR,” says McCurley. “We’re not working with a tight industry or market.”

Hudson adds, “The average SAR team thinks they don’t need anyone telling them how to do things or micromanaging them. But that’s not what we’re doing. It’s more like — instead of telling them what color shirt to wear, we’re telling them to wear a good shirt.”

“I’d like to see us develop better search management methods and more standard techniques for technical rescue,” says McKently. “It’s difficult to cover all situations, but there are tried and true best methods.”

Current Committee F32 members would also like to see more new members from diverse backgrounds, including FEMA representatives.

“We would welcome FEMA coming to us and saying, ‘This is what we need and you can help us write it, using the ASTM process,’” says Hudson.

But Womer appeals directly to anyone with an interest in SAR. “Don’t be afraid of standards,” he says. “We can all come to a happy medium.” Because, at their most basic level, SAR standards are about keeping rescuers safe as they work to save others.

1. F1956, Specification for Rescue Carabiners.
2. F1583, Practice for Communications Procedures-Phonetics; F1591, Practice for Visual Signals Between Persons on the Ground and in Aircraft During Ground Emergencies; F1846, Practice for Symbols and Markings for Use with Land Search Maps; F2099, Guide for Use of Universal Transverse Mercator (UTM) Grids When Preparing and Using a Field Map for Land Search.
3. 10,000 ft is 3,000 m.


*Please note that, on Nov. 20, 2009, this sentence was changed from the original.

Adele Bassett is a Media, Pa.-based freelance writer who has covered everything from youth gangs in Colorado to earthquakes in Connecticut while working for a variety of corporations and publications. She holds a B.A. in English, an M.S. in journalism and an M.B.A.