Training with the Wales Urban SAR Team
I’m very, very lucky in that I get to make my living by doing the things I love to do. One of the highlights of my working year are when I get to use my skills to help those who are already using their skills to make a difference in the world. A recent opportunity came up when I was asked by the Wales USAR team to go down to their facility in South Wales and deliver some training – specifically our Level 1 GPS Use course, part of the navigation training stream in the EST Framework.
GPS Training for SAR teams?
We have come a long way from the first GPS receivers available to public, going from binnacle-sized behemoths to them being part of most user electronic devices in one form or another. GPS-enabled devices are such a part of everyday life that it surely is unnecessary for someone to need training in their use? Especially a group as capable and skilled as a UK USAR team?
If your use of a GPS receiver is limited to looking at a screen and locating yourself via a pin icon on a digital map then yes, you’re probably about as trained as you need to be. But what if you want to use that device to navigate on an unfamiliar map? Or to record a trace of the route you have walked to ensure that those who follow you come along the same path? What about marking safe entry points or collapsed-building assessment? Did you know that you can use a handheld GPS receiver to create a new digital map, tracing the outline of rubble piles or unmarked watercourses and other potential hazards? There are many features on modern GPS receivers that can both be an asset and a liability for any user, and knowing exactly what you want the device to do and how to bypass the unnecessary stuff is key to the task.
The Wales USAR team asked us to help their teams improve their GPS skills as well as helping them work out how to make the very most of them and plan for future operations involving GPS.
We have been working with clients of all sorts to deliver GPS training for years, from individuals and walking clubs to government agencies and security contractors. The course content is broadly the same for each client, but we do change the way we deliver it to match the needs of that client – inter-agency co-operation and translation might be more useful for one user, whereas discretion and opsec are the priority for another. At the end of the day it’s often the same devices working under the same system, but the way that they are implemented changes.
Delivering the training
The L1 GPS Use course we have put together is delivered over 2 days – the first day is a mixture of theory and classroom sessions with micro-exercises and outdoor training. The second day is 90% outdoors with exercises skewed towards the client and the way they work.
On the first day we spent time at the Wales USAR training facility. For the theory sessions we covered everything that an end user could possibly want to know about GPS receivers, including:
- The various satellite navigation systems in use around the world including Navstar, Galileo, GLONASS, BeiDou etc
- How GPS works (trilateration etc)
- Position formats including Lat/Long in various formats, OS grid references and working with different mapping
- Limitations of GPS receivers, loss of signal and equipment failure
- Tracks, Routes, Waypoints and other GPSr features
Not everything we cover is something a user will necessarily need to think about every time they head out, but it’s important to understand that there is a wider system at work and that you can use that knowledge to solve problems. For example, what if the GPS receivers your unit or team have are all set to give a position in Lat/Long in decimal formats, but Control can only plot them in deg/min/sec? A quick change in the settings menu and you’re good to go – but you need to understand the difference between one set of numbers and another to be able to quickly solve the problem.
On the second day we headed into the snow-clad Black Mountains to lay out a couple of fairly simple exercises, using quarry spoil heaps and edges to represent the rubble piles of collapsed structures. After the teams returned back to the exercise control we downloaded the recorded tracks and waypoints to a laptop and went through the process of quickly building up a bespoke digital map of the ground, using live data recorded in the field.
Any kind of search operation, from misper SAR in the mountains and lowlands to Urban SAR and HART operations relies on three things – skilled teams operating on the ground, effective leadership and responsive planning and search management. Gathering GPS data from the field – either as accurate tracks of searches conducted or POI (Point of Interest) logging from search parties – is a vital resource for modern search management and cannot be discounted. The value of that data though is defined by the way it is collected, and some training and operational experience is needed to get the very most out of it and prevent errors and miscalculation.
As often happens with bespoke training delivery we end up in a conversation with the client about how they use the skills going forward and how they can integrate them into the work they already do. My time with the Wales USAR team was no different, and we talked about how they could further integrate GPS into the way they operate on the ground, as well as the involvement some of the team have with UK ISAR and search dogs.
I have experience on both sides of the table with UK SAR, both as a trainer and as a member of a mountain rescue team. Despite that I am still amazed at the breadth of skills employed by the USAR teams in the UK. Being shown around the training facility they have at the Wales USAR base was fascinating and quickly showed me that it’s unlikely that I would ever put up with the conditions they may have to work under. They are a credit to both the South Wales and Mid & West Wales Fire and Rescue Services and I was proud have worked alongside them for a short time.