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Search and Rescue Study Team Report


Executive Summary
Search and Rescue Funding
What Works Well with Current System
Search and Rescue System Issues and Opportunities

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Executive Summary

The Search and Rescue Study Team is one of three study teams (System Plan, Education, and Search and Rescue) convened by the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) WSDOT Aviation, through the division’s Aviation Advisory Committee to examine key strategic directions. The Search and Rescue Study Team met during July-November 2003 to develop recommendations to consider the efficiencies, issues and emerging trends.

Specifically, each of the study teams were asked to examine the current situation, review federal, state and local mandates and anticipate emerging issues. Based on this review they have been asked to recommend a vision, strategic priorities for their respective areas.

Like many emergency services agencies throughout the country, WSDOT Aviation relies on volunteer resources to provide the majority of manpower for conducting operations with which it has been mandated. These organizations tend to be organized as local, statewide or national programs. All have advantages to help fulfill the mission objectives of protecting life, property and the environment. Here we will examine areas that work well with the current system as well as areas where deficiencies exist at providing professional emergency response.

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The Study Team proposes the following additional action items as immediate priorities for the Search and Rescue Business Plan.

Develop comprehensive search and rescue plan

  • Pre-positioning of search bases, equipment and mission kits at key locations
  • Formalizing standards and expectations for volunteer organizations and program partners
  • Protocols for length of search, role in assisting other agencies.
  • Training standards
  • Incident Command System (ICS) structure, roles, responsibilities (such as the Juneau model, which trains personnel to certain positions)
  • Contingency strategy for non-volunteer resources.
  • ELT management process
  • Capital needs assessment
  • Contracts for reimbursements

Where appropriate, materials and guidelines should be drawn from existing models and industry standards.

Examine management and funding alternatives
It is critical that Search and Rescue continue to have a stable and sufficient source of funds. Any changes to management and/or funding must preserve this essential funding. The following are suggested as options to discuss and research further:
Consider funding of the operational missions from the State Emergency Fund. Law currently allows for this. (RCW 38.52)

  • Consider the impacts of eliminating pilot registration as a dedicated source, and fund through the aeronautics account
  • Analyze cost/benefit for alternative administrative mechanism for revenue collection and management of volunteer corps
  • Consider expanding role of program in statewide emergency services
  • Clearly define roles and responsibilities of WSDOT Aviation emergency services programs
  • WSDOT should do an inventory of funding options. For example, should WSDOT continue to administer and manage search and rescue or should management be transferred to another entity?

Continue to improve Search and Rescue Volunteer Base

  • Support CAP and WASAR in their recruitment and retention of volunteer corps

Develop an outreach and communication strategy for the Search and Rescue program

  • Assess public knowledge and expectations regarding search and rescue and how it works—including the general public and the pilot community
  • Promote participation of volunteer organizations
  • Develop program to reduce false ELT alarms

Study Team Members
Tris Atkins, Washington State Patrol Aviation
Chris Long, Washington Emergency Management Division, Search and Rescue
James Nakauchi, Civil Air Patrol, US Air Force Liaison
Tom Nesko, Washington Air Search and Rescue State Director
Dale Newell, Civil Air Patrol, Aviation Advisory Committee
Scott Plank, Aviation Advisory Committee
Tom Saelid, Office of Financial Management
Terry Simmonds, WSDOT Emergency Management
Andrew Stoeckle, Washington State Patrol Aviation

WSDOT Staff and Consultants
John Sibold, WSDOT, Director for Aviation
Stan Allison, WSDOT, Manager, Aviation Operations
Tom Peterson, WSDOT, Acting Search and Rescue Coordinator
Jim Scott, WSDOT, State Airport Maintenance Supervisor
Rita Brogan, PRR Consultant
Katherine Schomer, PRR Consultant

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Today, as defined in RCW 47.68.380, the Washington State Comprehensive Emergency Management Plan, The State and Regional Disaster Airlift Plan, and WSDOT – Disaster Plan, the Washington State WSDOT Aviation is tasked with the responsibility for coordinating and conducting all air assets for emergency services operations within the state. These commitments and plans provide relief services and protection to all citizens of Washington State. This includes Search and Rescue as well as other operations and is accomplished by the close coordination of all available resources, which include both civilian volunteers and government agencies. The volunteer force consists of pilots and non-pilots who are trained and certified by WSDOT Aviation.

In Washington State the volunteer force includes Washington Air Search and Rescue and the Civil Air Patrol. Funding for the search and rescue program comes from annual pilot registration fees.

  • The Aviations Divisions primary responsibility is to conduct and coordinate aviation resources to respond to searches for missing aircraft and to provide aviation assets for disaster relief operations. Includes Air Search & Rescue and the State/Regional Disaster Airlift Plan
  • Relies on volunteer support from Washington Air Search and Rescue and the Civil Air Patrol
  • State leads SAR in 43 of 48 states

Year ELT EPIRB Overdue Search Accident Support Sighting Fatalities
2003 89   8      19     1      51      8      7       12     
2002 200   9      33     4      60      23      8       10     
2001 159   22      29     7      62      13      10       21     
2000 104   13      23     2      18      4      2       2     
ELT: Emergency Locator Transmitter – Aviation.
EPIRB: Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacon – Marine.
Overdue: Aircraft reported late to arrive either by the FAA or family/friends.
Search: Mobilization of SAR forces to locate overdue or possibly downed aircraft.
Accident: Incident that causes substantial damage to an aircraft or severe injuries or death to a passenger or crewmember.
Support: A mission to support another SAR or emergency services agency with air assets.
Sighting: A report by citizens or law enforcement of a possible aircraft accident or incident.
Fatalities: Deaths associated with aircraft operations.

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Search and Rescue Funding

WSDOT Aviation Emergency Services (ES) operations have been funded through a pilot’s registration fee since 1967. The 2003 legislative session raised the fee to $15 per year ($7 earmarked for pavement through 05); the remaining amount goes to the search and rescue, education and training account. The US Air Force reimburses the Civil Air Patrol for training, insurance, and mission operations expenses. Washington State reimburses WASAR pilots for fuel only. Volunteers pay for their own hotel and meal expenses.

WSDOT Aviation is expected to collect $140,000 in pilot registration fees FY 03-05 to be dedicated to the S & R account. The cost to administer the pilot registration program for the same period is approximately $80,000. These costs do not currently reflect expensed items that are funded through the aeronautics account.

2001-2003 Aircraft Search and Rescue, Safety, and Education Costs
  Aircraft Search and Rescue Program $50,000  
  Clinics/Seminars $20,000  
  Education and Safety $32,600  
  Program Expenses $1,200  
  Aircraft Maintenance (20%) $10,000  
  1/2 FTE* (1/2 Aeronautics Account) $46,000  
  Total $159,800  

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What Works Well with Current System

WSDOT Aviation’s Emergency Services program is a model of partnership and community spirit and enjoys a high level of confidence among the general aviation community. There exists a high level of cooperation between WSDOT Aviation, the Civil Air Patrol (CAP), and Washington Air Search and Rescue (WASAR) to ensure the needs of Washington States citizens are met during emergencies.

As a result, State resources are cost effectively spent, providing substantial service to tax payers through volunteer emergency services teams. As an example, the direct costs to CAP for a recent search was $25,000. WSDOT Aviation total direct costs plus labor totaled nearly $18,000. For comparison, contracting the same work would cost substantially more based upon flight time and labor assumptions at well over $200,000. (See table below.)

Day Aircraft Flight Hours Sorties Personnel Man
Cost Labor 
WSDOT (Plus Volunteers)
Total 3.5/ Day 180.2 93 110   880 $7,658 $17,600
Civil Air Patrol (CAP)
Total 4.3/ Day 341.5 158 249   1992 $25,000 $39,840

Subtotal $32,658 $57,440
Total WSDOT and CAP $90,098 
Comparison: Private Firm
Projected 521.7 251 359   2872 $78,225 $129,240

*Flight time @ $150/Hour
*Labor @ $45/hour
Total (For comparison purpose) $207,465 

The partnerships work well from an operational perspective as well. The small organizational structure of CAP and WASAR allows for higher level of service, more flexibility and better response time (average response time is 2 hours).

WSDOT Aviation has adopted the Incident Command System (ICS) for conducting emergency services operations. Volunteers certified by the division have been trained in this system. Once the search subject has been located, the incident command responsibility is transferred over the county sheriff for conducting the rescue and recovery operations. The level of cooperation between air and ground resources is very high because of regular coordination meetings and standards of conduct.

ICS is the model tool for command, control and communication of a response and provides a means to coordinate the efforts of individual agencies as they work towards a common goal of stabilizing an incident, protecting life, property and the environment. ICS uses principles proven to improve efficiency and effectiveness in a business setting and applies these principles to an emergency response.

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Search and Rescue System Issues and Opportunities

Operational Issues
One of the key operation challenges of Search and Rescue is the amount of time and resources spent on tracking false signals and alarms, which can include anything from true distress calls, to “noise” from pizza ovens and score boards. Changes in policy regarding the use of satellite technology will come on line in February 2009 that will terminate the detection of the original type of emergency beacons that generate many of these false alarms. This will effectively screen many non-distress alarms. Today, approximately 96% of ELT activations are non-distress situations and has a budget impact. Although it would be impossible to eliminate all false alarms, reducing them would enhance the efficiency of the SAR program.

Capital needs include funding for ground equipment support such as radio equipment and mobile command centers.

Finally, while the volunteer base of WSDOT Aviation ES program is its greatest strength, it also poses challenges that are inherent any volunteer organization. Volunteers typically have full time jobs and families, there is difficultly attracting and retaining volunteers, and in managing volunteers (which is very different from managing paid staff). Consequently, there is occasional difficultly of finding replacement personnel when others aren’t available or decide not to volunteer anymore, particularly when operations are sustained over a long period of time. One study team member indicated a need to extend workers compensation protections to Search and Rescue volunteers and suggested WSDOT Aviation conduct an analysis of RCW 38.52.290 to determine whether additional provisions are needed for adequate coverage.

Budget Issues
WSDOT Emergency Services program is currently funded through pilot registration fees. The cost to collect these fees is about half as much as the revenue collected. In the past these costs have been absorbed in administrative overhead paid for out of the aeronautics account. With additional expenses, such as missions, training and education, WSDOT Aviation is unable to fund the program’s capital needs without additional revenue.

Public Awareness of the Value of Search and Rescue
Through the collection of a relatively small fee, volunteer crews are able to manage to provide coverage for Search and Rescue, but their story is not well known. The committee feels that more outreach should be done to both the pilot community and legislators to showing how pilot registration is used with great efficiency.

Another important education need pertains to the prevention of emergency response and non-distress alarms. A community outreach program needs to be developed for distribution through airport sponsors and Fixed Based Operators (FBO) that highlight the importance of testing and maintaining ELTs on a regular basis or as party of check-list procedures. This information could be disseminated through posters, videos, CDs or news services. A section should also be included in future pilot safety courses sponsored by WSDOT Aviation.

Planning and Data Management Issues
Because Search and Rescue has been a volunteer effort with limited financial resources, management attention has traditionally focused on day-to-day operational issues. WSDOT Aviation needs data that demonstrates to decision makers the value of investments made for aviation related emergency services resources and planning. Solid data is needed to maximize the effectiveness of program resources and to assure that these important functions continue into the future.

In addition to strategic and business planning that documents capital/budget needs and ES priorities, there is the need for an operational plan that outlines protocols for emergency services operations. Operational commitments are already outlined in existing plans and statutes but a gap in tactical level processes needs to be addressed. Although there is anecdotal evidence that Washington’s Search and Rescue capability is among the nation’s best, data and evaluation criteria need to be developed to determine the program’s success, as well as areas that need future attention.

Key Performance Indicators for Search and Rescue
The emergency services program is an extraordinary service that benefits all citizens of Washington State. It is provided in a cost effective manner because of dedicated and trained volunteers. The Study Team is confident that quantitative documentation will corroborate the value of the emergency services program and provide a solid foundation for projecting capital and operational needs, and improving program efficiencies.

The following potential indicators are recommended to measure the performance of the Search and Rescue and Disaster Relief Program:

Program Goal Indicator Comment
  • Reduce number of preventable false alarms and resources spent on non-distress ELT responses
  • Cost per response
  • Amount of time it takes to respond to non-distress calls
Need to establish data showing trends in reduction of false alarms.

Also, establish a process to create baseline data regarding disaster relief efforts.

  • Compare number of trained pilots and level of expertise within state and nationwide
  • Search and rescue exercises—consider number of successful targets and number of pilots completing training
There will be a need to factor in terrain when looking at comparing data between states.
Cost effectiveness
  • $$ leveraged through volunteer corps compared to cost of employing a private company
  • Cost of administration—ratio, comparison of costs relative to other models
It is suggested that responsiveness measures being used for highway may be applicable.
  • Reduced number of air accidents and searches
  • Percent of pilots reached through safety education
  • Increased registration by pilots
  • Increased aircraft registration

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