There is an apt proverb in the rescue world; necessity is the mother of invention. While some regions of the world are blessed with well-equipped and funded helicopter rescue units, others have had to be creative to develop these resources. AirMed&Rescue spoke with three US organizations that have overcome their financial and equipment issues to create safe and effective helicopter rescue assets.
Volunteer forces inNevada
Washoe County covers over 6,500 square miles of northwestern Nevada. It is home to both the state’s second largest city, Reno, and vast areas of high desert and mountains as high as 11,000 feet. The Washoe County Sheriff’s Office (WCSO) has established a helicopter rescue program to serve this expanse. But resources are limited.
“We are less than 0.5 per cent of the sheriff’s budget,” explained WCSO chief pilot Joseph Baumann. “So, we are not a big ticket item. Yet, we are of great benefit to the county and the surrounding counties for a wide variety of missions. All of our aircraft are ex-military ships obtained through the federal 1033 program which allows civilian law enforcement agencies to obtain excess military equipment. Without the 1033 program, we would not be able to have an aviation unit in Washoe County. It would be too expensive.”
All of our aircraft are ex-military ships obtained through the federal 1033 program which allows civilian law enforcement agencies to obtain excess military equipment
The unit uses two ex-US Air Force HH-1H Huey helicopters. One is primarily used for firefighting and is equipped with a 323-gallon Isolair water tank while the other is the principal rescue ship equipped with an internal rescue hoist that can be removed and switched between aircraft. Both Hueys have been similarly modified for better performance with bigger 1,800 shp engines with Bell 212 transmissions, as well as the FastFin system for better tail rotor authority at high altitudes.
The unit is predominantly staffed by volunteers, part-time pilots, and ex-military helicopters. “I am currently the only full-time pilot,” commented Baumann. “We have three other part-time pilots who have other jobs. We like our part-time pilots to have at least 1,000 hours of experience with pilot-in-command experience in mountainous terrain. Time in Hueys and NVGs is a big plus. All of our part-time pilots are ex-Army and most were instructor pilots and have mountain flying training. We like to fly dual pilot on rescue missions, but it is not always possible. We also have one full-time Tactical Flight Officer who acts as the hoist operator on rescue missions.
“We are the only law enforcement aviation unit in northern Nevada and are the closest unit to many areas in northern California. We do mutual aid for both law enforcement and rescue missions. Our sheriff is very proactive with sharing resources to anyone who asks. And we do not charge any fees for these missions.”
The rescuers who go down on the hoist are part of the WCSO search and rescue team. These are unpaid volunteers who are designated as hoist rescue technicians (HRTs).
“We have eight HRTs on the hoist team,” stated WCSO HRT Andy Monroe. “We train every month, both day and night. When there is a helicopter rescue mission, I am notified and will then contact the HRTs to see who is available. During the day, we can launch with a full crew in 30 to 40 minutes. At night, we are usually in the air within an hour. We are the only civilian rescue unit that performs night hoist missions outside of Las Vegas. So, we might do a night hoist anywhere in northern Nevada or northeastern California. We have performed helicopter rescues two hundred miles from our base. So, we really see ourselves as a regional resource.”
“With the variety of terrain and altitudes in our response area, we train to hoist in tall trees, steep angle slopes, and snow scenarios, both day and night. We are also beginning to train on vertical wall hoist rescues for climbers who are injured or stuck on a vertical face. We also do water rescues with insertions where the HRT deploys out of the helicopter at 10 feet, secures the victim, and is then hoisted into the cabin.”
Typical missions for the helicopter team include hikers who have fallen on steep and narrow trails, mountain bikers who crash on remote trails that surround the mountains above Lake Tahoe, hang gliders who have crashed in steep terrain, and off-road vehicle crashes.
Serving the National Parks of Wyoming
In the state of Wyoming, Teton County is renowned for outdoor recreation and includes Grand Teton National Park. The Teton County Sheriff SAR (TCSAR) team uses a contract helicopter during part of the year to perform short haul rescues.
“Increasing interest in summer and winter outdoor recreation in the backcountry makes helicopter use a key factor for quick, efficient rescues,” explained Dr AJ Wheeler, TCSAR Medical Director. “Some of these rescues could take days without a helicopter and completely use up our available rescuers to complete. After using other helicopter resources, we decided to contract for a rescue helicopter. We have had a short haul helicopter rescue contract eight months out of each year since 2007.
“We work with Grand Teton National Park (GTNP) and Bridger Teton National Forest to provide helicopter rescue capability for the summer months of the year. They have a contract helicopter for rescue and firefighting. During those four months, if the rescue is in the park, National Park Service (NPS) rescue personnel will respond with the helicopter. If it is outside the park, but within the TCSAR response area, the helicopter will respond with TCSAR personnel. This provides year round helicopter rescue capability with our eight month contract.”
The non-profit TCSAR Foundation created the annual fundraising program, Heli-Yes, to help raise funding to close the service gap between the helicopter being available for the sheriff’s contract and the national park contract
Wheeler noted the TCSAR short haul program was modelled on the National Park Service system used by GTNP ensures a consistency of techniques and procedures between the organizations. “The US Forest Service has also started doing short haul rescues and we all work to keep our programs as interoperable as possible. We also participate in the International Commission on Alpine Rescue helicopter rescue meetings to look at helicopter rescue around the world.”
The non-profit TCSAR Foundation created the annual fundraising program, Heli-Yes, to help raise funding to close the service gap between the helicopter being available for the sheriff’s contract and the national park contract. They do a lot of outreach and outdoor education through the Foundation, making TCSAR known throughout the community. There are also some wealthy people who live or have second homes in Teton County and are generous in their support.
“One of our fundraising goals is to enable more realistic training,” commented Wheeler. “Since flight hours are expensive, we would traditionally do short haul training close to the airport to reduce flight hours. With the extra funds, we will be able to fly longer distances to train in the mountains, where our missions often take place, for greater realism. We want to train under the most difficult conditions we can to increase our skill levels. It will also allow us to train more with our partner agencies such as resort ski patrols and the NPS during the winter months.”
Colorado collaboration with the National Guard
In Colorado, a comprehensive program called the Colorado Hoist Rescue Team (CHRT) has been created by combining the resources of two Colorado National Guard helicopter bases and four volunteer mountain rescue teams.
“The Colorado Army National Guard has been relied upon to provide helicopters for rescue missions on an ad hoc basis for decades, but it was never formalized,” explained Chief Warrant Officer Clayton Horney, the CHRT program manager. “In 2015, the relationship between the National Guard and several mountain rescue teams became official and operating guidelines and procedures were developed to create a safer standardized program. We also began getting civilian helicopter rescue equipment approved for use on military helicopters.”
The UH-60 Black Hawk is the primary hoist rescue aircraft. Some of the UH-72 Lakota have hoists, but they are strictly limited by altitude. Regardless, the UH-72 is frequently used for search missions due to its FLIR camera system, while the Black Hawk can do hoist missions up to 14,000 feet. At both bases, there are designated ships for hoist rescue at all times. Technically, they have a four-hour window to launch the aircraft on a mission. However, most missions are launched much faster. Typically, they respond to 25-30 rescue missions each summer.
Horney continued: “As we were developing our program, we reached out to Air Zermatt in Switzerland and the French state police rescue pilots and crews to help guide us. Both organizations have been very welcoming and helpful and have provided us with a huge depth of knowledge and experience.”
It is not unusual for National Guard helicopter units around the US to work with local fire departments to provide rescue personnel with paramedic and rescue backgrounds
Mike Everist, the CHRT Coordinator for Alpine Rescue team, stated: “The four civilian volunteer rescue teams that partner with the Colorado National Guard are Aspen, Vail, Alpine, and Rocky Mountain Rescue teams. The two US Army aviation facilities and the four civilian rescue teams came together to develop standard operating guidelines and procedures so all the teams and helicopter crews could work together seamlessly. This allows rescue techs from different teams to work on a helicopter rescue together.”
It is not unusual for National Guard helicopter units around the US to work with local fire departments to provide rescue personnel with paramedic and rescue backgrounds. However, with most of the helicopter rescues in Colorado being at high altitude on steep rock, snow, and ice terrain, there was a need for the rescuers to have strong mountaineering skills. Colorado has over 50 mountains over 14,000 feet. This was the reason for partnering with accredited mountain rescue teams. Most of the helicopter rescue technicians on the teams have at least a decade of mountain rescue experience. It is not a matter of just going up and down the hoist and attaching the patient; they must be able to lead and organize complex mountain rescue scenarios under severe weather and altitude situations. There are times when the rescuer is lowered to the ground and must climb or descend to where the victim is located. They must be prepared to perform a rescue on their own. The standard is to send two rescue techs on the helicopter in case it turns into a complex rescue. In addition, weather conditions can change quickly and each rescue tech must have the equipment, knowledge, and experience to survive on their own for 48 hours. Each team has six authorized rescue techs in the hoist rescue program.
There is a common thread that runs through all of these programs. When a full-time rescue helicopter unit was not financially feasible, they found a unique solution to meet their local needs. By partnering with other agencies and using highly skilled volunteers, they found a way to create a safe and effective helicopter rescue system.