Coast Guard Pacific develops a National Casualty Tracking system

Nanaimo SAREX
Survivors with CasTrack tags in raft during Nanaimo SAREX, with Coast Guard Tri

In the inky black darkness of the pre-dawn light, a passenger ship with a large number of passengers requires immediate evacuation. A constant heavy rain and wind only serves to elevate a feeling of panic and stress on passengers as they exit the ship on lifeboats and inflatable life-rafts. While most survivors are uninjured, some will require special attention due to as-yet-undetermined injuries. A Mayday call goes out and several Coast Guard and other nearby vessels speed to the scene.

For Search and Rescue resources arriving on scene, multiple casualty incidents present a number of challenges to rescuers. Is the scene stable or unstable? How will rescuers communicate with officers from the stricken vessel? How many passengers and crew are on the stricken vessel? How many are injured and how severely? What, if any, assistance is required to complete the evacuation? Are all passengers and crew accounted for? In a confusing and potentially dangerous scene, responders must focus and work to gain control.

Following debriefs into the response to the sinking of the BC Ferry Queen of the North, which underscored the difficulties in counting and tracking large numbers of survivors, a prototype casualty tracking system, “CasTrack” was developed in Pacific Region. The objective was to develop a passenger accountability system, supported by a training curriculum, to improve the Coast Guard response to marine disasters.

Reviews of major Search and Rescue incidents and exercises show that casualty tracking and accountability is consistently problematic. Passenger manifests that should allow an accurate accounting of passengers are sometimes non-existent, missing, or inaccurate. This lack of reliable information adds to the difficulty in accounting for large numbers of survivors in a chaotic scene.

Casualty tracking is considered necessary anytime there are multiple survivors and the possibility for confusion exists. This can especially be the case with multiple responders and transporting units or when the numbers of persons involved is high. Difficulties in tracking and accounting for survivors have arisen in incidents with as few as eight persons.

Positive feedback to the CasTrack prototype led to a New Initiatives Fund (NIF) application to the National Search and Rescue Secretariat (NSS), and Coast Guard Pacific was provided a two-year grant to complete the project. The project included review and research into current and best practices at home and abroad, including electronic and paper-based systems, followed by further system development, testing and evaluation at minor and major exercises and finally the production of materials and deployment to all CCG regions.

A key component of the CasTrack system is tags printed on tear resistant, waterproof paper. The tags are contained in a plastic sleeve and attached to a lanyard for easy application. Tags contains basic instructions for self completion and are attached to every passenger and crew member at logical choke points such as when embarking or disembarking a vessel.

In addition to allowing easy counting and numbering of survivors, the bilingual tags also capture basic but important information including name, date of birth and contact info, medical considerations and triage category (severity of injury) , and others in family group or party. This information is then collected by the designated Coast Guard Transport Officer to aid in the accountability process.

By developing a systematic approach to passenger accountability, Coast Guard responders may reduce precious time wasted in counting and recounting survivors at various stages during rescue and transport and avoid unnecessary or extended searches due to difficulties in confirming numbers. In addition, the CCG may provide valuable information to partner agencies at an earlier stage of the incident and minimize to those agencies the burden of survivors arriving ashore with minimal accounting.

A recent Search and Rescue exercise in Nanaimo proved how valuable and how relatively easy the system is to implement. In response to a mock explosion onboard the BC Ferry Qunisam, 100 survivors were evacuated from the ship by way of an inflatable life-raft system. Once disembarked, each evacuee was tagged as they filled up the life-raft. Though moved by various Coast Guard and Coast Guard Auxiliary assets, all evacuees were accounted for during all stages of transport to a shore based reception centre staffed by Emergency Health Services and community based agencies.

“Overall the Nanaimo SAR exercise and other exercises where the system has been used have demonstrated just how valuable the CasTrack system is for casualty tracking and accountability,” said Bob Ayres. “The tagging and numbering of survivors allowed for an easy and accurate count and for quick identification of those with higher priority needs, while the tracking sheets provided the Transport Officer and On Scene Coordinator with confidence that they had a grip on the transport status of all survivors at all times.”

Since its introduction in 2010, CasTrack kits have been rolled out to every Coast Guard Ship and Station across Canada. As well as being used several times in exercise across the country, the first real test on incident was during the response by the CCGS Sir Wilfrid Laurier to the grounding of the cruise ship MV Clipper Adventure in the arctic in August 2010. CG officers reported that CasTrack worked very well in accounting for the Clipper Adventure crew members who were transferred to the Sir Wilfrid Laurier during the salvage operations.