Lighting for Search and Rescue (USAR)

A lot of people have never been caught in an area where there's a huge disaster. You don't realize how much you rely on ambient light, or even light pollution. Because if your power is out and you're in a big city, you don't realize how much ambient light you get from the mall that's a mile away.

But when you're out in Port Arthur, TX and the bayous and the power's out...the power is out across the state. There's no ambient light. You’ve got nothing. You're talking pitch dark

When we would come up on some of these areas, these places have no power, we can't even make out what it is. Is this a motel? It's an apartment building? Is this a store?

-Excerpt from an interview with C4L & Associates, Hurricane Harvey Response

What is Search and Rescue? 

Search and rescue (SAR) can encompass anything from rescuing an injured rock climber in Denali National Park, searching for people trapped in a collapsed building after an earthquake, to finding an Alzheimer’s patient that wandered away from their home. There are many facets of search and rescue and they all have their own needs and disciplines. 

Search and Rescue by definition, is the search for and provision of aid to people who are in distress or imminent danger. The general field of search and rescue includes many specialty sub-fields, typically determined by the type of terrain the search is conducted over (wikipedia.org 2016)

Search and Rescue falls under 6 main categories. While all disciplines have different technical needs, they all serve the purpose of locating lost persons and rescuing them if they are in danger or injured. 

  • Mountain Rescue - Technical high angle rescue often involving ropes, rigging and haul systems. 
  • Ground Search and Rescue - Missing hikers or persons. Occurs after a natural disaster,
  • Urban Search and Rescue - Could occur after a natural disaster or man made disaster like gas explosion, building collapse or terrorist attack.
  • Cave Rescue - Occurs inside caves or grottos
  • Combat Search and Rescue - Search for those displaced, lost or kidnapped in combat
  • Air-Sea and Swiftwater Rescue - Search in the oceans or rivers for capsized boat victims, people swept out to sea or airplane crashes. Typically uses helicopters and/or boats.

In a disaster or emergency, the need for lighting is very relevant. Often, people are lost at night or injured inside of a collapsed building with no power. Search crews will go out after someone has not returned home at the end of the day and search through the night. Search and rescue operations can be very long affairs that start in the day and continue well into the night. 

Lighting can be the difference between finding somebody before a snowstorm comes in and people dying in the wilderness due to a slow, protracted search. Let’s look at some ways that lighting is needed for search and rescue applications. 

What are the Problems and Conditions Rescuers face?

Remote Locations

Often, people who require rescue are in remote, rugged locations that are difficult to access or traverse. It’s those adverse conditions that likely caused them to get lost or injured in the first place. 

Long hours in the dark

Search and Rescue operations often last several hours and sometimes days. When conditions permit, an operation will run through the night. Rescuers will face long hours in the dark of night, especially in the winter. 

Dark interior locations

Not all search and rescue operations take place at night. Many operations happen during the day but are in locations that are dark like abandoned or damaged buildings, culverts, deep canyons, forests and caves. Even a rollover car accident presents dark conditions within the vehicle where it’s hard to see the extent of the damages and injuries.

Portability

People requiring rescue are likely in remote areas far from roads, civilization and power. Rescuers have to transport all their necessary tools deep into the backcountry or debris to access a victim. This could be as simple as carrying water and warm clothes to a hiker who is lost. It may require a large team to set up complex hauling systems to retrieve a rock climber out of a remote canyon or crevasse. Either way, all that equipment needs to be hauled to the rescue site and then taken back out. 

Dangerous Conditions

Search and rescue personnel have to work in the same conditions or environment that affected the victim they are searching for. Steep, rough terrain in the mountains or debris from a collapsed building or natural disaster can prove difficult and dangerous for rescue personnel to work in. It’s important for rescuers to avoid additional injuries from hazardous conditions or they will become liabilities to the mission.

Self Sufficiency

A rescue site could be 5-10 miles back into the wilderness. Rescuers need to be self-sufficient and prepared for long hours on a search.  It’s critical for rescuers to have enough clothing for rapidly changing conditions, food and water to keep them fueled throughout the mission and all the tools and equipment needed for the rescue. They do not have the option to just run back to the truck and get something, they must be able to carry everything needed for the rescue and for themselves.

Fatigue and Exhaustion

The long duration and the physical demands of SAR operations can easily lead to fatigue and exhaustion. Rescuer fatigue can lead to mistakes and injuries. The smallest mistake can lead to additional injuries or complications that add valuable time to the operation.

Personal Task Management

Especially in high angle or technical rescue operations, rescuers have to set up Intricate and complex rigging and systems. They need to be able to clearly see and assess the equipment and conditions around them to set up safe redundant configurations or retrieve tools out of a pack. 

To Learn More, Visit the Guide to Lights for Firefighters

Types of lighting that is useful for search and rescue

There are numerous types of lighting that can be used for different purposes. While some can be used for different purposes, they all have their own strength. 

Headlamp or helmet light

Argentina Special Rescue Operations using FoxFury Command helmet lights

Designed to be worn on the head or on a helmet. Headlamps are one of the most useful lights that a rescuer can have, providing hands free lighting. Since it's mounted to your head, it illuminates whatever you're looking at. Headlamps are ideal for task lighting, increasing situational awareness and short range search.

Flashlight or right angle light

Flashlights have been the norm in lighting for decades. They are easy to hold, you point them wherever you need and they feature a good tight beam that is suited for searching. Right angle lights are similar to standard flashlights but the head is angled 90° from the handle so it can be clipped to the body in a lower profile position. Flashlights are ideal for task lighting, personal search light for close proximity of 10- 50ft, and signalling.

Responder uses a FoxFury BT2+ to search for lost person along a river shore

Large spotlight

A spotlight is a more powerful light that has a stronger beam for longer range search. It is larger and heavier so it is not quite as portable as a smaller flashlight. But it does have a more powerful light and bigger batteries so it can run longer. Spotlights are useful from a command post or canyon edge to search long distances.

FoxFury Nomad Prime illuminates propane tanks 1300 feet away

Scene lights

Scene lights are also larger, more powerful lights. They feature a wide, flood beam that will illuminate a large area. Several scene lights can be set up around an accident or disaster scene to provide an overall lighting for the scene. They are ideal for illuminating incident command, medical tents and triage, staging and logistics areas, trails and walkways, hauling systems, access points. 

FoxFury, Nomad, 360s illuminate a frozen pond for a swimmer rescue
Foxfury Nomad 360 lights provide scene lighting for a night ice rescue

Beacon lights

A beacon light is a strobing light worn on the body that makes a rescuer more visible to other rescuers, command or a drone. Also beneficial to put on rescue dogs to keep them more visible.

Drone lights

Drones are becoming a go-to tool for search and rescue operations. Lights mounted on the drone can light up the area for the camera on the drone, provide light for rescuers on the ground and serve as strobing lights for visibility to other aircraft.  

FoxFury, Drone Light, Drone
DJI Matrice drone equipped with FoxFury Rugo lights provides illumination for an urban missing person search

Consideration for lighting 

Waterproof

Hurricanes, winter mountain rescues, caves, swiftwater rescues. These are just some of the situations where water is a predominant factor. Many times, rescuers don’t get to decide if they stay dry or get wet. Their lighting needs to be waterproof to withstand rain, submersion in water or just continued high humidity. An IPX7 waterproof rating will withstand submersion up to 10 feet for multiple hours. 

Durability

Equipment gets abused in SAR operations. Unfortunately, if equipment is damaged and inoperable, a rescuer may not have the ability to exchange or fix it in the field. Lighting equipment that fails could leave a rescuer stranded in a dangerous spot needing assistance from someone else. Hauling, falling, transportation, rough conditions

Task lighting

The ideal light for task lighting is a headlamp. Many headlamps are designed with a strong, tight beam that projects long distances. Yet, one of the biggest uses for a headlamp is to illuminate the area within 2-6ft. 

Kayaker wears FoxFury Command headlamp while packing dry bags at night
Kayaker wears FoxFury Command headlamp while packing dry bags at night

A broad panoramic beam is more beneficial in the scenario because it illuminates a large area of light immediately in front of the rescuer. This makes it easier for the user to comfortably see more around them and reduces the fatigue caused from the very bright beam area and the surrounding darkness. 

Batteries and Power

For smaller, personal lights, AA batteries are a common go to battery. They are readily available in stores or gas stations. That is a bonus for search and rescue teams that are working in rural areas. Also, fire and police departments will order large bricks of AA batteries for use in radios, lights, and other electronics.

For larger scene lights, the power options are rechargeable batteries or gas powered generators. Generator light has long been the standard for scene lighting. Battery powered lights offer several advantages. 

  • Silent operation - At Incident Command or medical areas, there is a lot going on and communication is critical. Generators are loud and force people to talk over them, thus increasing the possibility of miscommunication or stress.
  • Cordless design - Generator lights require cords between the lights and generators. This introduces additional safety hazards and the extra time of laying cable and setup. Cordless lights can be moved anywhere easily as needed.

Portability

SAR operations can be dynamic with changes in weather or circumstance. New transformations can lead to Incident Command moving or different evacuation routes to be established. Lightweight, portable lighting can be easily moved and restaged depending on the dynamic nature of the situation. 

Traffic safety

A vehicle that has driven off a road and down an embankment is a common SAR operation. Or directing disaster victims to safe shelter. In these cases, SAR workers may be working on roadways, vulnerable to distraught, distracted motorists. They need to be very visible to motorists and other first responders on the scene. In addition to bright colored reflective vests, it's advantageous to have some sort of strobing light to alert motorists of their presence. 

Medical

Often once the victim is found, they’ve sustained injuries. Proper lighting allows the rescuer to quickly assess injuries on a victim and begin treatment or call for assistance

Color Options

Scene lighting that has color options can provide quick identification of different areas of Command such as Medical, Triage, Logistics, Supply or UAS ops.

Flashing blue color band on a Nomad 360 to signify a medical center

Benefits of lights to rescuers

The biggest benefit of lighting to rescuers is that it enhances their safety. Whether it's a powerful scene light illuminating a whole hillside or a personal headlamp providing immediate light on the trail in front of a rescuer, light enhances situational awareness and reduces the chance of mistakes and injuries.

A rescue operation can be a very stressful event. Hours are long even though the clock is ticking, often it's cold and the terrain can be challenging. A responder is required to do a multitude of tasks like rigging gear, treating people, and reading instruments. If not fully illuminated, all tasks can be more difficult and frustrating. Over time, the stress level will increase, resulting in irritation and potentially hostility throughout the team.

By using proper lighting, the responder can complete routine tasks easier, thus reducing their overall stress and fatigue. This results in better morale and attitude of the crew.

A responder can work faster with lighting. By seeing more clearly, they reduce their judgement time for all tasks. Even the smallest tasks like retrieving gear out of a backpack are made easier and quicker. Over the course of a large scale rescue, all of those small gains can add up to critical time savings overall.

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