Learning to provide helicopter transport; Wyo. emergency responders learn safety when successfully transporting patients


Cameron MathewsWyoming Tribune-Eagle | | Tuesday, June 26, 2007

CHEYENNE, Wyo. Approximately 40 local officials were given a lesson Thursday evening in helicopter safety.

Local law enforcement, military members, emergency management personnel and crews from area fire districts met at Laramie County Fire District 2 headquarters to learn more about how to be safe when working on and around helicopters.

"The training was meant for first responders who might need to call in a helicopter for assistance," said Lew Simpson, spokesman for Fire District 2. "They need to know what to do if they need to call in for one."

Due to the remote nature of this area, emergency responders often find themselves in situations where a patient is in critical condition and needs medical assistance quicker than that from an ambulance.

That's where Flight for Life comes in, said Simpson.

Air Life of Greeley, Colo., and F.E. Warren Air Force Base choppers are what officials here use to transport patients.

Dan Beckle, an instructor with Air Life for the last 16 years, said several factors go into helicopter safety, and that goes for the pilot and medics on board the helicopter as well as those on the ground.

With each blade on the machine running 38 feet long and able to push a helicopter up to 150 mph speeds, safety is mandatory.

"The loss of human life is unacceptable," he said. "If there's anyone back there near the end of the helicopter, you're going to die."

Everything from landing zones to weather and patient preparation to weight limits on the helicopters was discussed.

When an Air Life helicopter is called out, it needs a 100 feet by 100 feet clear landing zone.

Beckle, who has made more than 2,500 flights, said any object bigger than the size of his thumb could potentially upset the chopper's landing or takeoff and needs to be moved.

This means pieces of wood, lawn, chairs, rocks and other equipment. If it's in the way, it's going to get moved, he said.

All vehicles within 50 feet of the aircraft are also moved. The last thing anyone wants is to have a $52,000 piece of machinery hit something or someone, Beckle added.

"Everything has to be clear when that thing lands," he said. "It has to be free from obstacles and must land on a firm surface."

In daylight, smoke is an easy way for people on the ground to communicate with the helicopter pilot to ensure a safe grounding. At night, strobes work well, especially when keeping pilots from landing on electrical wires, Beckle said.

"The quicker we can land and the safer we can do it, the better success we will have on a patient transport," he said.

Before a helicopter lands to transport someone, the patient is kept in the ambulance for safety. This allows for more effective communication and preparation from crews working to bring the aircraft to the ground, Beckle said.

Weather also presents a challenge when flying a helicopter. While they can fly in wind, 60 mph gusts will keep the aircraft on the ground. It's up to the pilot, the joint communications center here and the airport to determine wind speeds and when it's not suitable to fly.

"Fly the helicopter as if it were a river," Beckle said. "Going upstream, you'll go slower. But, if you're going downstream, you're going to go faster."

When entering the helicopter, people are urged to go in through the front of the craft and never behind.

Because of the shear strength of the helicopter blades, Beckle said even if someone's hat flies off while standing underneath the blades, let it go or you'll get sucked in to the tail rudder.

For Marlene Aitcheson, chief of Fire District 2, Thursday's exercise might become an annual event to help train her crew members.

"This was just continued education for us," she said. "It was really good."

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