"When the time comes and someone at the brink of death receives a second shot at life, it makes all the sacrifices worthwhile." - CPT (Dr) Joel Tan
The deafening siren comes on and our airmen from RESCUE 10 started to "scramble". In a composed and steady manner, they reached for their gears, put them on, and were airborne within minutes. This, was what they were trained for, so that others may live.
For 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, our pilots, Aircrew Specialists (ACS), and ground crew from 125 and 126 SQN, as well as Medical Officers (MO) and medics from 1 Medical SQN, are on standby for Search and Rescue (SAR) missions. Just in the month of May, they were scrambled three times in three weeks to save lives.
CPT Neo Wei Keong was the SAR Captain during two of the scrambles. He shared some of the challenges they faced when scrambled. "The button can be activated at any time of the day, and night, even when the entire crew are resting. We have to be prepared for the unknown out at sea as there might be obstacles around the vessel. Weather conditions such as strong winds can also affect our mission. We will have to cater for sufficient fuel for the duration of the flight. It can be mentally stressful."
His co-pilots, CPT Quek Zuo Xiang and CPT Gerald Law explained that the coordinates of the vessels are the most important information they make use of when locating it. They also try to establish communications with the ship to get updates. If time permits, they will also use the internet to search for information on the type of vessel they will be conducting the mission on. This helps them to locate the vessel and identify suitable points for winching.
"In the day, we can ask the vessel to pop smoke flares or use marine markers to get our attention. At night, the ship can flash their search lights or turn on their lights. There are no fixed ways to ensure a successful rescue, we have to improvise along the way," said CPT Quek.
It is more challenging to conduct a SAR mission at night, as there is less visual feedback. There is no contrast between the sea and the sky, and "it is basically pitch black". Teamwork is critical during the mission, as they will need to stay focused and communicate with one another.
Without a landing deck or in smaller areas, one of the ACS, also known as the Winchman, will be winched down together with the MO to rescue the casualty. The Winch Operator will also need to ensure that the cabin is secured and winch them back up safely. 3SG Avery, an ACS, shared, "The condition of the casualty also plays a huge factor to any rescue. Strapping up a casualty onto a stretcher on the bridge of a ship is not an easy task. In many cases, the casualty is afraid of being winched up. It’s my job to keep him calm and make sure that he is tightly secured as we are going up."
Another challenge that the medical team faces during the SAR mission is that of working in confined spaces. As an MO, CPT (Dr) Joel said, "In the helicopter, you have to work within a confined space that is on the move with a lot of vibrations. This makes it difficult to move about and perform procedures. Verbal communications within the medical team is also a challenge due to the roar of the helicopter rotors and engine. While being well-trained, we also have to resort to using hand signals to communicate with each other."
"Before each mission, my medic and I do a quick team huddle on the way to the aircraft so that I can communicate all my thoughts to him. This often calms us as we will then be clear on how to execute the treatment when the patient is on board," he added.
CPT (Dr) Joel explained that there are fixed medical procedures to assess the patient, the "ABCDE - Airway, Breathing, Circulation, Disability and Exposure". This procedure allows him to screen and detect any immediate life threatening injuries that the patient may have. This is followed by a more thorough assessment of their entire body for injuries. On board the helicopter, the MOs can set an IV plug, which is a small tube that they put into the patient's veins to allow them to give fluids and medications. There are many medications that they can administer to treat a host of medical conditions from severe allergic reactions to cardiac arrest. They can also perform intubation which involves putting a breathing tube through the mouth into the windpipe when the patient stops breathing or cannot breathe on his own.
While the SAR team makes personal sacrifices to be on duty 24/7 (and wishes that there are no scrambles), they find their job rewarding and are happy and honoured to contribute and be part of the team. They will always be ready, so that others may live!