Operation Isis: A Search Controller’s View

Back in January I was asked to be the lead search controller for Operation Isis, when I agreed I don’t think I knew what I was letting myself in for. From the on-set Op Isis was ambitious – the largest lowland rescue exercise ever, the first nationwide ALSAR call out and the fleshing out of a newly developed major incident plan. With 140 foot searchers, 20 search dogs, 15 observers, bike, kayak and swift-water rescue teams, all trying to locate 17 missing people in 80 square km of rural Oxfordshire, there was a lot to co-ordinate.

I hoped to provide live updates via Twitter/Facebook during the day but unsurprisingly I was too busy to do so. Here’s how the day panned out from my perspective.

The command structure on the day was:

  • Gold command: Headed up by Manse. The team spent 7 months sorting out the logistics of getting permissions to use the huge area, arranging the press coverage, dreaming up the scenario, getting volunteers (mispers) to go and hide and all the other general preparation. On the day they looked after the welfare of the mispers prior to them being found, co-ordinated the sign-in of everyone attending and provided a safety officer to silver.
  • Silver command: Headed up by me. We ran the incident on the day, devised scenarios, planned where we wanted searchers, co-ordinated locations for bronze controls and provided them with the resources they needed.
  • Bronze controls: Three neighbouring teams (BSAR, SEBEV and WilSAR) were given search areas and managed the search resource in those locations. They used the plans sent from silver to assign tasks to search teams and managed the care and extraction of mispers once they’d been located.

The way the silver and bronze control teams worked forms the major incident plan and as we proved on Saturday, it enables one ALSAR team to co-ordinate resources from all other ALSAR teams into one large scale search.

My day started at 6am when I received the call out text:
999 23/03 Op Isis 4 Duke of Edinburgh groups with 17 kids have been missing all night with no contact. RV Farmoor Reservoir Cumnor Road Oxford OX2 9NS

This is OxSAR’s standard call out text format: 999 means respond immediately (the other codes are 333: stand-by and 000: stand down). When I arrived on scene half an hour later, Steve was still calling out all the other teams; it took 38 minutes to alert every ALSAR team and get them all on the road.

As it was an exercise and we had no-go areas, so Manse had prepared a large, annotated map. He briefed me with information that I would normally get from the Police Search Advisors (PolSAs), which was:

Four D of E groups, working separately but from the same scout group, had made it to their check points at 20:30 last night, but none of them had arrived at their 21:30 check points. We had names, basic medical information and a last known location or a place last seen for all of the groups, as well as ages for most of them.

I asked two of OxSAR’s recently qualified search planners, Rachel and Carl, to help me in silver and we got to work. There was not a lot to go on initially but we had an IPP (initial planning point – based on either the last known position or the place last seen). 4 foot teams were deployed quickly to search the areas immediately surrounding these locations.

The trickle of searchers soon become a steady flow, all wanting quick deployment. Kris and Lou arrived to help with silver planning; the control vans from other units arrived, as did the Thames Valley PolSAs, and all needed briefing. The route cards showing the missing groups’ expected routes were also delivered, meaning that proper planning could begin. At this point we stepped up the incident from a regular search to a major incident. Shortly after that we split silver control in half (operations and planing), and I oversaw both teams.

I assigned bronze command roles (and locations) to Brian from BSAR, Gail from WilSAR (southern) and Paul from SEBEV. They were briefed and given copied paperwork and maps before heading to their RV to establish their control points. Next job was to split the searchers up and allocate them to the different control points, weighting the resources as appropriate to the needs of the search sectors. Briefing the searchers on which control point they needed to go to was a major challenge and one of the learning points for next time – we need to find a way to make that process easier and quicker.

We interviewed the groups’ scout leader to get some more clues about the possible behaviour of the groups, equipment carried and reasons why the groups may have gone missing. When sightings and more information became available we fed that into the planning and out to the bronze controls. We kept the search tasks flowing, as best as possible, but it was tricky given the huge amount of resources we had to stay on top of it at all levels. I think there is definitely a maximum amount of simultaneous search resource that can be co-ordinated. Once the bronze controls were set up, the teams out on the ground were handed over to the relevant controller. In silver we focused on planning the search, communicating that plan and co-ordinating the bronze controls on the progress of their tasks. We were assisted in silver control by a team from CamSAR who performed the vital role of go-fers, ferrying maps and tasking sheets out to the remote bronze controls. Importantly they also transported the mispers when they were located.

Then the finds started happening. First were two kids from one group in the southern sector – we debriefed them and used what we learnt to feed planning for the next task, finding their friends. Then in quick succession groups in the northern and central sectors were found. The northern area was stood down but the central area stayed open as they dealt with the evacuation of an injured misper. As the weather improved, sightings from the public were fed to us by the PolSAs. We were again able to focus resources around those areas and they led to more finds.

The specialist resources we had were of great use – the boat team from West Mids was deployed to search the river after a sighting down there and the bike team was able to quickly head out and investigate another area of interest. The kayak teams were deployed in other roles as we deemed the river too high to deploy a team on to and the helicopter was unable to arrive due to a real incident. In one area search teams found a battle re-enactment and as we didn’t want to contend with arrows and black powder, I declared a new no-go area and passed that message up to gold command.

During the day, I had brief opportunities to provide an overview of the incident to some of the observers who came along from organisations such as the British Transport Police, the charity Missing People, Oxfordshire Fire and Rescue Service, the EPO and Mapyx, as well as Adrian and Paul, ALSAR‘s chair & training officer. Everyone I spoke to seemed impressed with the way the operation was running and the work being done on the ground.

Once the last two missing people were located, sheltering in a tent in the far corner of the search sector, we called End-Ex at 17:40, almost 12 hours after the initial call came in.

The professionalism of all ALSAR teams involved was fantastic. This doesn’t surprise me as we regularly work on searches with people from multiple teams but when applied on this scale it really made the difference between complete chaos and achieving an effective search. I think everyone from across ALSAR should be pleased at the result. Congratulations to the Op Isis Management team who did a fantastic job setting up the exercise. It was hard work but a lot of fun.

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