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The rescuers…

Posted 7 June 2018 · Add Comment

The Abu-Dhabi-based National Search and Rescue Centre (NSRC) is the first of its kind in the UAE. Alan Warnes looks at how it came into being and what success it has had.

The UAE’s national search-and-rescue (SAR) operation was, until recently, run by the military – but it was quite restrictive.
According to one source: “Anyone requesting assistance would have to call one central focal point in the UAE Armed Forces Joint Operations Centre (JOC). It wasn’t quick or easy.”
So, a plan was put together to take the responsibilities away from the military and overhaul the system. Recommendations were made to change legislation and find a body that would be responsible for the SAR effort.
“Until those components were right, we couldn’t get the SAR effort into the right place to do the job,” explained the source. “All the support issues needed considering; how to work with the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO); the International Maritime Organisation (IMO); as well as the regulators and jurisdictions on the ground. We wanted to stand up capabilities to work with everyone, including the military and the police. But we needed them to recognise us.”
Objectives were drawn up to be an international example of rapid response and operational readiness by harnessing the latest resources, technology and communications, and a plan was formed to fulfil all land, sea and air SAR requirements within a maximum of one hour, known as the ‘golden hour’.
Things started to move in 2013, when the SAR role was set up under the Supreme Council for National Security. “That meant the NSRC, which was launched at the 2015 Dubai Air Show, was part of a ‘super structure’ – above the military and police,” explained the source. “It meant we could gain their support in the right way. If we had been part of the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), we might not have got their support on a day-to-day basis.”
The NSRC is now in charge of all UAE search-and-rescue operations. One of the driving forces behind the facility is Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the UAE’s national security advisor.
In August 2016, when the NSRC joined the International Maritime Rescue Federation (IMRF), His Excellency, Major General Staff Pilot Stephen Toumajan, the general manager of NSRC said: “Our objective is saving lives in all of the UAE. Joining the IMRF will certainly enhance learning from experience and exchanging perspectives and knowledge among SAR practitioners.”
There are seven emirates in the UAE, which all require SAR coverage. They are looked after by five AW139 helicopters, on alert at Abu Dhabi (Al Bateen Airport), Fujairah IAP (Fujairah), Al Ain (Abu Dhabi), Al Hamra (Abu Dhabi) and Liwa (Abu Dhabi). Between them, the helicopters can reach anywhere in the UAE within the golden hour, which includes a 15-minute brief.
For SAR missions, the helicopters are manned by a pilot, a co-pilot, a crewman and a paramedic. The pilots, who are mainly Emiratis, come from the UAE’s Joint Aviation Command, based at Al Bateen.
Abu Dhabi Aviation (ADA) – the Middle East’s largest commercial helicopter operator – provides the rear crew with the paramedics all certified to category one trauma nurse status. The crewmen are a mix of military expats from Australia, South Africa, Malaysia and France, while the paramedics are mainly from South Africa, largely due to the head of ADA’s paramedic recruitment being from that country.
According to one source, it was requested that paramedics to be sent to cover UAE combat search-and-rescue (CSAR) operations, where helicopters would often fly into enemy territory to pick up downed aircrew or ground troops, but, as they were civilians, they were not allowed to go. Whether this might mean more military Emirati personnel being trained in the paramedic role isn’t clear.
Initially, the UAE Air Force and Air Defence (AF&AD) operated five AW139s, in military markings, to cover the SAR role. The intermediary helicopter is powered by two PT6-67C turboshaft engines with full-authority digital engine control (FADEC) to minimise pilot workload and offer high power margins for maximum safety.
In 2015, the UAE armed forces ordered a further six, which were delivered in two batches from the Finmeccanica (now Leonardo) Helicopters facility in Milan. While all 11 aircraft are owned by the UAEAF&AD, they are operated and maintained by ADA at the international airport. It has meant the original five aircraft, which operated in the grey scheme, have been repainted in the red and white NSRC markings.
All the aircraft operate with a Spectrelab SX-16 NiteSun, designed to provide a mobile, high-intensity light source.
All 11 AW139s are also equipped with L3 Wescam electro-optical/infra-red (EO/IR) forward looking infra-red (FLIR) turrets. The first five have the MX-10, while the latter six are fitted with the MX-15, which means they can fly at a medium altitude, ideal for CSAR operations. They also have a shortwave infra-red (SWIR) camera, which means the FLIR operator can see through haze.
In November 2015, at the Dubai Air Show, the UAE Joint Aviation Command placed a tentative order for three Leonardo AW609 tilt rotor helicopters. They will be used by the NSRC, most probably for long-range SAR.
At the time, the AW609 programme was still reeling from the loss of the prototype AW609, which had crashed in northern Italy, just days before claiming the lives of both test pilots.
According to Major General Abdulla Al Sayed Al Hashemi, of the UAE Defence Ministry, the AW609 would significantly improve the service’s SAR capabilities: “It will provide the flexibility of a rotary and fixed-wing, with its 275kt (500km/h) speed and 750nm (1,400km) range, much faster and further than conventional helicopters,” he said.
By November 2017, Leonardo was close to clinching the deal, with the avionics packages and the UAE’s concept of operations (CONOPS) to be finalised. Certification of the Pratt & Whitney Canada PT6C-67A-powered tiltrotor is still to be approved, which means delivery would be pushed back into the initial months of 2019, rather than the previous target of late 2018.
There were more than 1,000 rescue missions in 2016 – 157 of them life-saving.
These included a walker, who fell off a ledge in Ras al Khaimah, where rescuers couldn’t get in or out to the site. Fortunately, one of the party called the Ras al Khaimah police, who contacted the NSRC, followed by a ‘WhatsApp’ message with the location. A helicopter was launched and was overhead 23 minutes after the initial distress call.
Another incident involved a seven-year-old boy, who suffered a brain injury and a collapsed lung after an accident. He was taken to a hospital in Diba, Fujairah, but wouldn’t have survived because it did not have all the services and amenities he needed. He was put on a helicopter in what would be, for him, a high-risk flight, and transported to the trauma centre in Abu Dhabi. Today he is alive and well.

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