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Emergency decision making

Jun 1, 2009

To the editor: I recently had occasion to think about and contemplate the proper response to emergencies afloat, while following the harrowing mid-ocean survival and rescue of solo-sailor Ken Barnes, whose 44-foot ketch was disabled by a storm. Barnes’ boat was dead-in-the-water and adrift approximately 500 miles off the southern coast of Chile. I followed his dire plight during the three days that it took authorities to plan and execute his rescue by a fishing boat and I attempted to evaluate his decisions and actions in order to do the following analyisis. The purpose of this analysis is not to find fault with Barnes, but to learn from his experience and help others who may find themselves in a similar situation in the near future.

My qualifications for evaluating emergency decision making comes mainly from being a professional mariner, however, I am also borrowing from my days in the California Air National Guard where my training was in life support and I used to give survival, rescue, and egress briefings to C-130 aircrews. I have attended USAF mishap investigation school and have an AAS degree from the Community College of the Air Force in Survival and Rescue Operations. Proper decision making for flight crews is emphasized by the USAF, and part of my training was to help evaluate crew actions. The main difference between flying and the maritime environment is of course things happen a lot faster in aircraft and decisions are required at a much accelerated pace as compared to shipboard, which usually affords more time to think and evaluate the situation.

The one factor that is common to both aviation and maritime emergencies is the rapidity of events leading to a complete change of fortune. Whether flying or sailing, your status can go from “A-okay” to “Oh No,” in a hurry. Although Barnes was sailing in some pretty bad seas for a few days, his situation changed completely within two minutes. A combination of wind and waves rolled his boat 360 degrees, dismasting his vessel and breaching its watertight integrity. His engine propulsion and electrical power were also affected as the initial emergency caused collateral damage, not unlike falling dominoes. Before his vessel rolled, he wasn’t even worried because he didn’t think conditions had gotten to the extreme point…yet!

Once Barnes and his boat were catapulted into an extreme emergency situation, he was prepared and wasted no time in instituting an emergency plan. The first thing to do is check out the situation and survey the damages. In Barnes’ case that meant masts broken, hatch and porthole breached, water inside hull, and some major systems out of commission: steering, propulsion, and electrical. Thus, his situation was clearly dire and he needed to think of what to do next.

Could he/should he extricate himself from this dire situation or immediately call for help? This question is one of the hardest to answer due to the many factors involved, both physical and mental and probably one of the most important due to time constraints. Ken did the right thing in his situation and activated his EPIRB and called his girlfriend on his satellite phone, thus setting into motion his ultimate rescue. Let’s digress a bit to discuss reasons why people sometimes make the wrong or delayed decisions during an emergency, to hopefully help the reader not to make these same mistakes.

Consider why trained military pilots sometimes delay their ejection decision, when the difference between life and death can be measured in tenths of a second. Basically there are six factors that can affect the timeliness of the decision to eject and are described as follows:

I. Disbelief - this can’t really be happening now and to me.

II. Fear - of getting injured, of getting killed, of an unknown environment.

III. Questioning - have I done everything possible to save the aircraft and extricate myself?

IV. Reluctance - to leave familiar surroundings, to leave comfort zone.

V. Physical - injury or incapacitation of pilot.

VI. Temporal - temporal distortions, loss of time element, time speeds up or slows down.

In addition to the above factors, an individual who owns the vessel or craft involved in an emergency or an adventurer would be hampered from making timely and proper decisions by the additional eight factors:

VII. Failure - sometimes we are so focused on success that we do not consider failure a probability, even though statistically failure may be quite probable.

VIII. Ego - our ego is a powerful factor and we hate to admit defeat no matter what!

IX. Hiding - often after personal failure we are reluctant to face other people and would rather fade away, go down with the boat, get lost, instead of face our embarrassment.

X. Broke - sometimes we have the go-for-broke attitude that fogs our thinking.

XI. Gamble - we sometimes gamble with our fates, when we need to stop and think instead.

XII. Disappointment - we are too disappointed to admit defeat and go with an emergency plan.

XIII. Push - sometimes we just push the envelope beyond all reason.

IVX. Home - we may feel that we don’t want to leave what was our home sweet home.

I hope that the aforementioned decision-hindering factors make it clear the importance of an emergency plan. Once this plan is ready to institute in an emergency it is important not to waste much time thinking about it before acting. Barnes was quite good during his recent emergency and did all of the right things. After activating his EPIRB, he then put on his emergency survival suit, got his inflatable life raft ready to deploy, rigged a sea anchor, did what he could to keep the sea out of his boat and communicated for the next three days until being rescued. He is a good example to illustrate the five Ps rule: Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

—Fredrick Gary Hareland holds an AAS degree in rescue and survival operations and in avionic systems technology and is a certified marine electronics technician and NARTE certified technician. He has served in the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, the Military Sealift Command-Pacific and worked for Maersk Line Limited and Norwegian Cruise Line. Hareland currently is at China Lake Naval Air Warfare Station as a microwave-communications technician. He lives in Ridgecrest, Calif. Edit Module