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How modern technology has changed search and rescue training

Rear view of an airborne, red-and-white rescue helicopter with a blue, pink, and grey sky in the background.

Drones, data analytics and virtual reality are creating more effective emergency responders

“Prepare for the worst and hope for the best” is a saying that’s wise to live by. For the professionals and volunteers who put their lives on the line for others during anything from small residential fires to region-wide disaster responses, preparing for the worst is the only realistic way to ensure everybody makes it out safe. That’s why search and rescue training is essential for public safety departments everywhere.

Unfortunately, having a “practice disaster” for training is hard work – and expensive. Public safety agencies facing staff retention and recruitment difficulties are already stretched thin without accounting for massive training exercises. Emergency responders need a force multiplier to accomplish their search and rescue training goals. Modern technologies such as drones, advanced data analytics and virtual reality (VR) are helping to bring those goals back within reach.

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Drones rewrite the rules of search and rescue

If any technology has changed the face of modern search and rescue operations, it is drones. Also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), a drone needs only a trained operator and a charged battery to enable the kind of aerial searches that would otherwise require thousands of dollars per hour to keep a helicopter in the air.

Drones equipped with thermal imaging, laser rangefinders and other advanced search capabilities have reunited missing children with their families and located missing hikers deep in inaccessible canyons. They help map out the location of stranded flood victims and may even be used to isolate and track wildfires before they’ve grown to the size of one square mile. Local departments can even request assistance from Axon Aid to receive livestreaming aerial views of natural disasters within hours of a request thanks to the power of drones.

Given these varied capabilities and capacity for near-instant and sustainable responses, it’s essential for today’s search and rescue training to include extensive experience with drones:

  • How to operate drones: Advances in AI-driven piloting and drone design make drones far easier to pilot than any other form of aircraft. However, flying them effectively in potentially dangerous situations while making the most of their suite of cameras, sensors and tools is still demanding. Depending on the size of your department, it likely won’t be enough to have just one seasoned drone operator you rely on for every deployment.

  • How to work with drone support: Just as important as knowing how to fly a drone is knowing how to effectively work alongside (or a few hundred feet below) other aircrafts. Search and rescue training should equip responders with the skills and tools they need to collaborate with drone operators during boots-on-the-ground response, enhancing capabilities across the board.

  • How to ensure compliance: FAA regulations place strict requirements on who can operate drones, where they may fly them and when. Drone pilots also must have a Part 107 certification. While these regulations do offer special exemptions for emergency responders and other official uses, it’s still essential to remain up to date on all required registration and documentation to ensure your department’s drone operations continue uninterrupted.

If you’d like to learn more about integrating drones into your search and rescue training and operations, check out Axon’s guide on how to develop a public safety drone program from the ground up.

Data analytics leads to faster and more effective response

Information and time are the most precious resource for emergency responders. Even with the aid of rapidly deployable tools such as drones, public safety workers may still find themselves playing catch-up with developing situations. Data analytics can help save lives by allowing faster responses based on better information pulled from previous incidents.

Emergency responders collect massive amounts of data during their day-to-day operations. Meanwhile, environmental conditions that substantially impact the likelihood of emergency situations – such as dry weather increasing the risk of fire or heavy storms driving up the likelihood of flooding in certain areas – are also readily accessible. Yet many public safety departments have trouble putting this data together to help assemble resources when and where they’re most likely to be needed.

U.S. Coast Guard Commander Dan Bell found that data-based heat mapping revealed hot spots for search and rescue cases. By analyzing the vast quantities of data at his disposal, he was able to identify trends that could lead to faster responses and safer outcomes in the event of maritime emergencies. Given the proper training in data analytics, local public safety departments may be able to achieve much the same.

Beyond identifying broader trends in emergencies, search and rescue training can even use data analytics to inform more effective plans during a response. For example, a three-year series of experiments staged in residential fire conditions yielded priceless answers to practical questions such as whether to immediately rescue occupants behind closed doors or wait for conditions to improve, differences in outcomes based on whether occupants are found through doors or windows and beyond. Applying these learnings to search and rescue training could help save lives.

VR makes search and rescue training better

Search and rescue operations may involve dozens or hundreds of people operating across thousands of square miles. They may entail working in disaster areas with extensive infrastructure and property damage, where conditions on the ground could change within minutes. But search and rescue training is not the sort of thing that one can safely pick up “on the job.” How do you simulate emergency conditions in a way that won’t bankrupt your agency? The answer, across an ever-growing swathe of emergency response roles, is VR

Here are just a few examples of VR search and rescue training:

  • Search and rescue helicopter crew VR training lets personnel perform winch operations in realistic mock cabins. The crews repeat their drills in various simulated weather conditions until they become second nature.

  • Earthquake response VR training simulates post-disaster conditions in urban centers. It immerses trainees in realistic environments where they can learn to identify likely locations of survivors and then use specialized equipment to facilitate rescue.

  • Fire responder VR training gives participants a safe, repeatable way to train fundamentals while minimizing the need for costly and potentially dangerous real-life fire simulations.

By setting up approachable and repeatable replicas of real-world emergency scenarios, VR search and rescue training helps public safety departments combine modern advancements in emergency response with the solid fundamentals they’ve relied on for decades. Better still, VR training can give public safety workers a leg up in responding to the types of public interactions they’re likely to encounter day by day, too.

Axon has helped public safety departments across the country improve their responses, officer safety and quality of life with modern training technology. Speak directly with an Axon Air solutions expert today to learn more.

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