In January 1982, Air Florida Flight 60 – a Boeing 737 airliner – crashed into the Potomac River in Washington, DC after the pilots failed to engage the aircraft’s internal ice protection systems during the snowstorm. The US Park Police Bell 206L LongRanger, Eagle 1, responded to the incident and, using a line attached to the cabin, the crew hovered only a few feet above the icy river to rescue the surviving passengers.
Helicopter-equipped law enforcement agencies from local and national police forces have since been committed to executing search and rescue (SAR) duties as additional assignments. For some, SAR has become a primary mission with dedicated ships and crews. However, this necessitates the same high level of skill and training as other dedicated SAR operators in order to complete them safely and efficiently.
A range of aircraft as diverse as mission parameters
Helicopters used for law enforcement SAR range from light single-engine ships to heavy twins. Outside of the US, most law enforcement agencies that have helicopters belong to national police forces. In Europe, some of the most common ships used for SAR are Airbus H135 and H145 helicopters and their predecessors. In the US, the most common SAR aircraft for police units is the Airbus H125 and its derivatives. With no national police force, single-engine rescue ships are the standard within local and state agencies. However, larger and busier police rescue units are adding Airbus H145s and Bell 429s to their fleets, typically purchasing one for use as the primary rescue ship, while the other single-engine ships are used mostly for law enforcement patrol duties.
A unique source of helicopters for US law enforcement is the Department of Defense: helicopters that have been retired by the military, such as the Bell UH-1 Huey, can be transferred to civilian government agencies at no cost. The recipient agencies modify and maintain them for law enforcement and rescue duties, with many departments installing newer, more powerful engines and transmissions, rotor blades, and other aftermarket equipment to increase their hot and high performance. This results in a very capable rescue ship at a much lower cost than a new aircraft.
The most ubiquitous law enforcement equipment for SAR work is the electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) camera systems found on almost all police helicopters. These are critical for search missions where the exact location of the victim is unknown, such as locating missing children and adults with mental health conditions. More recent systems are capable of zooming in on small targets miles from the helicopter, allowing them to search from higher altitudes, which is much safer for the helicopter in the event of a mechanical failure that demands an immediate landing. The high resolution also gives the crew a much better picture of the conditions and possible hazards at the scene and can develop the rescue plan even before they arrive.
Another valuable tool for ships equipped with rescue hoists is an embedded downward-facing high-definition video camera in the hoist housing. The camera images can be sent to a screen in the cockpit that allows the pilot to see what the hoist operator sees, can be recorded for training and mission evaluation, and are often released to local television stations. This is a great public relations tool that can be used to gain public support for maintaining or increasing the budget for rescue equipment.
Another rescue technique popular with US police agencies using smaller ships, such as the Bell 407 or MD500/530 series, is short haul. A long rope, up to 250 feet long, is attached to the helicopter by two separate hooks to the belly of the aircraft. A rescuer is then attached to the rope and transported to the victim, who is subsequently attached to the rope and flown a short distance to where the patient can be loaded into the helicopter or passed off to a ground or air ambulance.
Whatever method or helicopter is used, when a unit decides to perform rescue missions, time and money must be dedicated to maintain the necessary skills. This can be especially demanding in areas with a wide variety of terrain and hazards, such as California, which ranges from rivers and lakes to expansive deserts and 14,000-foot mountains.
Some agencies have partnered with local firefighters and rescue technicians to benefit from their expertise, including the California Highway Patrol, which uses Airbus H125s equipped with rescue hoists. They are crewed by a pilot and a paramedic/hoist operator, and each of the eight helicopter bases recruit and routinely train with local rescuers, who are the ones lowered to the victim by the hoist. In the Sierra Nevada mountains, these include mountain SAR experts in climbing and rope rescue as well as avalanche prediction. Lifeguards at park beaches are used for water rescues on lakes and the ocean.
In more rural areas of the western US, several sheriff’s departments have obtained ex-military Bell UH-1 Huey helicopters exclusively for rescue work. Due to the small budgets of these units, some are using volunteers who work full time for fire departments as firefighters and paramedics. This allows the aircraft to be staffed by highly experienced paramedics who can immediately begin advanced life support in the hinterland.
Communications systems crucial to success
Of all the skills used during a rescue mission, none is more important than communications. The crews should be using standardized check lists for every type of rescue scenario. Such is their importance, these are frequently laminated and attached to the bulkhead near the hoist controls, and universal words and hand signals are used to prevent misunderstanding. It is only by repetition that the crews can build trust and confidence in each other.
A great benefit to communications that has been recently developed is the wireless intercom. This allows the pilot, hoist operator, and rescuer on the hook to talk with each other without the cumbersome intercom cords that are plugged into receptacles. The rescuer can continue to talk with the crew in the helicopter when they are off the hook and the helicopter moves off while the rescuer is preparing the victim to be moved.
Of all the skills used during a rescue mission, none is more important than communications
Increasingly, law enforcement agencies are seeing the benefit of using external professional trainers to initiate new training techniques and conduct regular audits of tactics, techniques, and procedures. This can be especially helpful when starting high-risk techniques that have not been done before such as night rescues or vertical wall rescues. It is vital that units take a ‘crawl, walk, run’ approach to helicopter rescue, starting with one type of rescue and only a couple of rescue devices. This allows them to master major techniques one at a time and, as crews gain skill and confidence, the training scenarios should get more difficult and complex.
Across Europe and the US, virtual and physical helicopter rescue simulators are used to prepare for a greater diversity of training scenarios without the time consumption and cost of using an actual helicopter. In addition, emergencies that could include the need to cut the hoist cable can be run. These facilities are great for developing and practising good communications among the entire crew. Additionally, organizations will run communications simulations using their helicopter on the ground. They power it up and the crew takes their positions and run through all the checklists and talk through a rescue scenario using the precise terminology to ensure familiarity and proficiency during an actual rescue.
Keeping standards high
One of the greatest challenges facing law enforcement and other rescue organizations is the development of standards and accreditation for helicopter rescue. As of yet, there is no single overarching world organization providing accreditation services, but there are numerous working groups and annual conferences that bring together helicopter rescue personnel from all over the world. In the US, the Airborne Public Safety Association (APSA) offers accreditation programs for law enforcement, firefighting, and SAR.
While any helicopter public safety unit can participate, most are law enforcement agencies. If they want to get accredited for SAR, they send in an application. The unit is then sent a copy of the standards for SAR developed by the SAR committee of APSA. The unit then has six months to do a self-assessment to see if they comply with the standards and, in the instance they don’t comply with any of the standards, are given time to do corrections. The unit then is inspected by an assessor chosen by the APSA. The assessor determines if the unit is in compliance with all the standards and submits a report to the commission of APSA. If they are in compliance, APSA then accredits the unit, which is good for three years.
Rescue missions performed by law enforcement agencies have come a long way since that day on the Potomac River 40 years ago. Ad-hoc rescue missions are hopefully a thing of the past in many parts of the world. Equipment specifically designed for helicopter rescue, backed by constant training using techniques and procedures developed using best practices, has enabled police forces to successfully fulfil SAR missions. However, there is much more work to be done. There are areas of the world where there are no helicopter resources other than law enforcement units that have little rescue capabilities.