The Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) has issued a Safety Advisory Notice urging helicopter services to consider a rescuee’s physical and medical status before deciding whether the use of a strop is appropriate. The Notice came as the ATSB investigated an accident that occurred on 31 August, where a person fell from a harness and died while being winched up to an Air Ambulance Victoria helicopter near Lake Eidon, Victoria (https://www.airmedandrescue.com/latest/news/atsb-investigates-fatal-ambulance-victoria-winch-accident).
The statement reads: “The ATSB advises helicopter emergency medical service and other operators carrying out winching operations to note the circumstances of this accident and consider the implications for their operations of the risk of patients or other persons being winched to slip out of a rescue/retrieval strop. In this context the size, weight and medical condition of the person(s) being winched may indicate that other recovery options offer reduced risk.”
According to the ATSB, the crew involved in the mission opted for a double-lift extraction with the patient in a strop on the basis that a stretcher lift would have been too dangerous due to steep terrain, surrounding vegetation and the possibility of fouling. The lift was performed from an area where trees had been cleared.
The ATSB’s initial report states: “Initially the winching procedure appeared to proceed normally. The aircrewman reported that the paramedic appeared to have his arms and legs wrapped around the patient, as is the normal procedure. When the paramedic and patient were approximately 30-40 ft (9-12 m) above the ground, the aircrewman noticed that they had moved towards the edge of the winch area and close to the upper branches of the trees. The paramedic stated that he came in contact with the branches and had to use both hands to fend [them] off as he came through the tree canopy. The helicopter was moved back and right about 5 ft (1.5 m) and the winch continued.
“The aircrewman reported that once the paramedic and patient were clear of the canopy, at about 15 ft (4.5 m) below the aircraft, he noticed that the patient was moving or wriggling. The aircrewman stopped the winch for a control check, and shortly after resuming the winch noticed that the patient’s arms were not in the usual position in the strop and that the paramedic appeared to be shouting at the patient. The aircrewman elected to continue winching in, and informed the pilot that the patient was slipping.
“As the paramedic and patient reached the height of the helicopter’s right skid-landing gear, the paramedic was facing the helicopter and the patient was facing outwards. The paramedic reported attempting to pin the patient against the skid in an attempt to stop him slipping. The aircrewman continued winching until the paramedic’s head was level with the middle of the door opening. At this stage the aircrewman informed the pilot that he could see the patient slipping further. He dropped the winch pendant and reached down, grabbing the patient’s shoulder in an attempt to stop his fall. The aircrewman stated that by this stage the patient appeared to be unresponsive and limp.”
Despite the crew’s efforts, the patient slipped out of the strop and fell to the ground, sustaining fatal injuries, said the ATSB. The Bureau’s preliminary investigations indicate that the aircraft, winch and rescue equipment were serviceable at the time of the accident and that the crew were qualified to carry out the task. The investigation is continuing and will include examination of strop design and its potential limitations with respect to the weight and physical dimensions of a patient, potential medical issues associated with patients being winched in rescue strops, the operator’s rescue procedures and protocols and the certification procedures for helicopter winching rescue equipment.