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Maritime Lifesavers

INAER behind the scenes


The work of the rescuers aboard SAR helicopters is a critical combination of analysis, coordination and courage. We speak to Guillermo Lavía and Juan Martínez Verez, lifesavers with INAER for the Spanish Maritime Safety Agency aboard the Helimer 401, an H225 based in A Coruña, Spain.

By Belen Morant

Guillermo Lavía and Juan Martínez Verez speak to us from aboard INAER's Helimer 401, an H225 based in A Coruña, Spain.

What is it about the Costa da Morte that makes it such a critical zone for SAR operations?

Guillermo Lavía: The Galician coast has quite harsh weather and sea conditions, similar to those of the North Sea. There’s lots of fishing and shellfish activity, along with a maritime shipping lane used by many vessels heading to and from Europe, at times with hazardous goods. In summer we rescue many recreational boats; these are often complex thanks both to the boat's design (with a mainmast, stays and backstays) and bobbing, which makes it difficult to get in close. That’s why for safety reasons we rescuers normally have to swim to recreational boats.

The emergency calls we receive are generally work accidents, sinkings or medical evacuations. We also locate and rescue shellfish gatherers and fishermen, as well as perform pollution control tasks such as locating and collecting samples of possible oil slicks.

Juan Verez: In winter, the fishermen work in very harsh conditions, with waves that can easily reach 5 meters. We’ve even seen waves up to 12 meters in height – and there are still boats out there fishing. As for the coast itself, it consists of high, steep cliffs with complicated access and winds that are unpredictable because of the way the air currents form.

What marks the start and end of an SAR mission?

J.V: Our team is ready to go 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. When we receive a call from the rescue control center, we can be in the air within 15 minutes and at the rescue zone 15 minutes later, depending on the distance. The head of operations coordinates with the control tower and together we plan the mission, always in accordance with the training we’ve received. Thanks to this training, 80% of which takes place at night, we’re fully prepared for any type of emergency.

G.L: Once in the zone, we gradually move the helicopter into position, providing radio instructions to the target if necessary. The mission’s success depends on us knowing what the helicopter is capable of and what weather and conditions to expect at the target zone. In fact, dealing with adverse weather is the most complicating factor of these missions. We are then lowered down to the vessel using a rescue winch, and, once below, we analyse the situation and give instructions to the vessel’s crew. If needed, patients are lifted up to the helicopter by a sling if possible, or if not using a stretcher or rescue basket; it all depends on the patient’s condition. We have all the necessary first aid equipment on board, including spinal boards, cervical collars, a stretcher and an oxygen unit.

J.V.: No two SAR missions are the same. No matter how prepared we are, something unexpected always comes up...

G.L.: Also, more often than not when we get down below we find ourselves in a situation that’s very different to what they’ve told us on the radio. Then there are other cases where the people being rescued don’t follow our instructions due to nerves or panic. However, our training and experience mean that we can resolve the majority of these unforeseen situations.

“The rescuer typically descends when we reach a height of 50 feet, provided it’s safe. There’s constant contact between the winch operator and the rescuers. You need to have absolute confidence in your colleagues: it’s the only way to successfully complete these missions.”

Jesús Lucas Ayuso, rescue winch operator.

You’ve been working with the H225 since September 2014. What differences have you noted with this helicopter?

J.V: For me, one of the most important improvements is the search equipment with WESCAM, EuroNav and 360° Radar. On search missions, which are quite common, time is of the essence. If you don’t find the person within the first hour, that’s a very bad sign. Now we have an infrared camera, a searchlight and something that’s very important for us: two rescue winches, equipped with a much faster system. This is an extremely important safety factor in larger helicopters like the H225 that can carry two rescuers, because if the cable breaks or something happens down below, we know that our colleague can come down for us. The H225 is much more powerful – there’s a 40-year difference between it and our previous helicopter; it’s like going from driving a Seat 600 to a Ferrari (laughs).

G.L: We’re continuously adapting to these changes and learning to use all the different equipment, some of which is familiar while other things aren’t. But one thing is clear: the equipment on the H225 provides us with much more information about our surroundings, which we can then give to the pilot, and that facilitates our mission. We’ve become systems operators.

Were you born a rescuer or is it an acquired skill?

G.L: Many of us come from the world of lifesaving or emergency services – especially water-related sports and jobs. In my case, I was a competitive surf lifesaver. The physical tests are important. Lifesaving is less of a job and more of a calling, but these aren’t skills you can acquire from one day to the next; you’re constantly learning over the years. Even if you’re at ease hanging from a winch at a height of 120 feet, the challenges you face down below can be difficult to deal with: you never know what or who you’ll find down there.

J.V: Others among us come from the Navy or different specialist military units. While you may understand the theory, you don’t truly realise what it’s all about until you’re hanging from a cable over the sea with an 8-meter swell. I love what I do, but not every story has a happy ending and it’s hard to get used to that. Some people try it out and find it’s not for them.