Understanding Fatigue in SAR Volunteers

Tired SAR Volunteer sleeping in carThe effects of fatigue on detection are well known and documented. The IAMSAR Manual suggests making a correction factor of 10% on any operations lasting longer than 8 hours. However, the US Coastguard sweep width experiments found a 42% and 51% drop in detection for Medium and Low Visibility targets when the searcher self-declared fatigue.

Not only does this suggest that full-time SAR operators need to be aware of the effect of fatigue on detection especially for small, difficult to see targets but highlights the need for SAR volunteers, who are likely to be carrying out SAR operations on top of a "normal" working day, to understand how fatigue affects their capability.

The US Coastguard carried out workplace tests that led to the development of a Crew Endurance Management program. They identified 13 primary risk factors leading to fatigue.

The seven core factors include;
1. Insufficient Daily Sleep
2. Poor Sleep Quality
3. Fragmented Sleep
4. Main Sleep During the Day
5. Changing Work/Rest Schedule
6. Long Work Days
7. No Opportunities to Make Up Sleep

They also identified six modulating risks including;
1. High Workload
2. Lack of Control over Work Environment
3. Exposure to Extreme Environments
4. Poor Diet
5. Lack of Exercise
6. High Stress

Volunteer SAR personnel will recognise many of these as part of their daily lives. It is important, therefore, for all SAR volunteers to understand and attempt to minimise their own fatigue. They must also be clear about self-assessing their own fatigue during operations and being open with incident commanders about their fatigue level.

SAR volunteers should ensure that they are fit to carry out SAR operations. This means having a healthy lifestyle, as much as possible, including regular exercise and a healthy diet.
SAR volunteers should also be aware of their own Mental Health and keep themselves mentally healthy. This means getting enough regular sleep, talking with colleagues regularly about stress and avoiding the crutches of drugs, alcohol and smoking.

Prior to responding to incidents SAR volunteers should think carefully about their fatigue level and not be afraid of "letting the team down" by not responding. Turning out when not fit is more of a hinderance to the team.

During operations SAR volunteers should be honest in self-evaluating and reporting their fatigue levels to team leaders and incident commanders, who can them make informed decisions regarding both the effectiveness of the search effort but also on the need for additional resources to take over and allow team members to rest.

Search managers should already be aware of the effects of fatigue and be accounting for this in their search plans but SAR World is not afraid of reminding them within this article that SAR volunteers are often keen and enthusiastic individuals who will try to keep going, even past the point where their effectiveness is compromised.

One final point to note with SAR volunteers; when the incident ends volunteers often have a long drive home whilst still under the effect of a hard SAR operation which might have been both physically and mentally demanding. In many cases this is the most dangerous time and care must be taken when driving home and, if need be, take a short nap. Stay awake and stay safe.