Forest Service conducts their first short-haul medevac

Above: File photo of a Teton Interagency Helitack crew member (on the left) and a Jenny Lake ranger training for short-haul with a packaged “victim” in Grand Teton National Park. NPS photo.

Last week on June 18 a U.S. Forest Service helitack crew conducted the agency’s first short-haul medevac. It occurred on the Trail Mountain Fire in central Utah when a firefighter suffered a leg injury. The location was very remote in steep terrain, which would have made it very difficult for firefighters to carry the victim out. The least hazardous option for extrication was helicopter short-haul in which personnel are carried as external cargo at the end of a rope. They can be flown to or extricated from a remote area.

short-haul extrication
The “X” marks the location of the June 18, 2018 short-haul extrication. USFS photo.

One of the resources assigned to the fire was the Teton Interagency Helitack crew and helicopter, usually based on the Bridger-Teton National Forest in Wyoming.

Thankfully the injury to the firefighter was not life-threatening. After being flown to a nearby drop point and transported by ground ambulance, the person was treated at a hospital and released.

While the National Park Service has been conducting short-haul medevac extrications for years, the concept is fairly new to the Forest Service. The Teton Interagency crew first became qualified in 2015.

Four other Forest Service helitack modules are also qualified:

  • Wenatchee Helitack, Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, R-6;
  • Teton Interagency Helitack, Bridger-Teton National Forest, R-4;
  • Krassel Helitack, Payette National Forest, R-4;
  • Tucson Helitack, Coronado National Forest, R-3;
  • Central Montana Helitack, Helena/Lewis & Clark National Forest, R-1.

A National Park Service article has some of the history of interagency short-haul programs.

New 10-minute video about short-haul personnel extraction

Above photo: screen grab from the short-haul video

Today the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service released a 10-minute video listing the requirements, capabilities, and 2016 outlook for their short-haul programs — a system of extracting personnel suspended under a helicopter on a long rope. It can be very useful for removing an injured firefighter from a remote area to a location where more conventional and less hazardous transportation is available.

The video consists of text on the screen with occasional still photos and a few seconds of actual moving video.

Fake pen

The fake pen “writing” the text and the fake hand sliding in photos were slightly interesting for the first few seconds but they quickly became tiresome and tedious waiting for the fake pen to create the perfectly formed letters. It would have made more sense if the pen was making text that more resembled handwriting. If your video is nothing but ten minutes of text, distracting music, a few seconds of actual video footage, and a handful of still photos, why not just create a .pdf document that someone could read more quickly than watching a gimmicky video?

The credits include Lane Lamoreaux as video editor/producer (it does not say from what agency or company), and Seth Weber of the USFS as National Short-Haul Specialist.

Firefighter in Oregon with broken leg rescued by short haul

A firefighter who suffered a broken leg while working on a wildfire east of Corvallis, Oregon was extracted from a very remote area by short haul with a National Park Service helicopter.

Below is a press release from the Linn County Sheriff’s Office:

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“Linn County Undersheriff Jim Yon reports on Monday July 20, at 10:10pm, the Sheriff’s Office received a call from the U.S. Forest Service requesting assistance from Linn County Sheriff’s Office Search and Rescue for an injured wildland fire fighter. Michael Lee Burri, 31 years old from Estacada, sustained a broken leg while working with a 21 person Mount Hood Initial Attack Fire Team that had been fighting a small fire near road 11 off Quartzville road.

Sweet Home Fire Department paramedics initially were dispatched to the scene. Two medics hiked in approximately 3 miles to Burri. Once on scene, they recognized an air rescue would be the safest way to remove Burri.

Linn County SAR worked in coordination with Oregon Air National Guard to get a United States Coast Guard helicopter to the area to attempt a rescue. The Coast Guard helicopter arrived in the area at 03:00am. As the Coast Guard helicopter attempted to land, air from the blades caused the fire to quickly stir up. The fire, along with the rough terrain, made the rescue not possible. The Coast Guard helicopter did not attempt another rescue.

Linn County SAR had been on standby up until this point and now responded to the trailhead. They cleared a secondary landing zone for a helicopter. At day light, a National Park Service MD 900 helicopter, out of Redmond, was successfully able to air lift Burri out. They had to use a rope and harness because the helicopter was not able to land. Burri was taken to the secondary landing area, loaded into the helicopter, and then transported to the Albany Municipal Airport. Burri was transferred to an Albany Fire Department ambulance and taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Corvallis.

Linn County Sheriff’s Office had a total of 18 members from SAR involved with the operation, along with 2 members from the Sweet Home Fire Department. Other agencies involved were the U.S. Forest Service, United States Coast Guard, and the National Parks Service.”

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(UPDATE July 27, 2015)

On July 24 we asked Tina Boehle, a spokesperson for the National Park Service, about this incident. She told us today, July 27, “According to Shad Sitz, our Regional Aviation Manager for Pacific West Region, it was the Grand Canyon National Park helicopter and crew that conducted the short-haul operation you note.”

Later in the day a “72 hour” report was issued for the incident.

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Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Dave.

Forest Service launches short-haul program

short-haul training
USFS helitack personnel receive training in the short-haul program, during the week of May 18-22 in Missoula. USFS photo by Lane Lamoreaux.

This year the U.S. Forest Service is launching a short-haul program, which involves transporting personnel suspended beneath a helicopter. While the National Park Service and other federal and local agencies have been using the tactic for years to insert firefighters and rescue personnel and to extract people with injuries, firefighters in the USFS have not been authorized or trained in the technique. However short-haul operations have been conducted in the Forest Service for a number of years for law enforcement missions.

About 20 people from two USFS helitack crews went through short-haul training last week in Missoula.

The USFS plans to only use short-haul when someone has a “life and/or a loss of limb threatening injury or other medical complications that warrant prompt extraction”, or if a conventional rescue operation would expose rescue personnel or patients to a higher degree of risk. The agency is calling it the “Emergency Medical Short-haul Program” in their Emergency Medical Short-haul Operations Plan (6.5 MB).

short-haul training
USFS helitack personnel receive training in the short-haul program, during the week of May 18-22 in Missoula. USFS photo by Lane Lamoreaux.

The USFS will only use Type 3, or “light”, helicopters for these missions, such as a Bell-206B-III, Lama, MD-500, or AS-355.

Typically one or two medically qualified personnel would first be inserted who may initially treat or stabilize the victim, and then they will package the patient so that they can be extracted via a line that could be 250 feet long. They are then transported to the next level of medical care.

“In the past, the U.S. Forest Service has used contractors, cooperators, and the military to provide emergency medical short-haul capability,” said Seth Weber, National Short-Haul Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service who was an instructor last week.  “The agency is developing its own program to ensure that services are available when needed.”

The USFS will begin the program this year using two existing agency helitack crews, Teton Interagency Helitack from the Bridger-Teton NF in Wyoming and Wenatchee Helitack from the Okanogan-Wenatchee NF in Washington.

Short-haul qualified helitack crews will not be exclusively short-haul; their primary mission will continue to be support of fire management operations, but if needed they could be diverted to a short-haul incident. During fire season, the helicopters and helitack crews will likely be moved to locations experiencing a high amount of wildfire activity where they can be used to conduct both types of missions.

short-haul training
USFS helitack personnel receive training in the short-haul program, during the week of May 18-22 in Missoula. USFS photo by Lane Lamoreaux.

Video introduction to short haul operations

This video about short haul operations from helicopters was produced by the National Park Service and the U.S. Forest Service. It is designed to give interagency management teams an introduction to the operational and risk assessment procedures for safe short-haul operations.

Yellowstone area helicopters make two short haul rescues

Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.
Yellowstone Helitack crew, short haul training. NPS photo.

Helicopters in the Yellowstone area made at least two short haul rescues in August, both of them with ASTAR B3 ships.

The first occurred on August 17 in Mount Rainier National Park in Washington. The helicopter from Yellowstone National Park had been assigned to the general area for fire and rescue support working out of Wenatchee when a climber had a medical problem at the 12,000′ level on Mount Rainier at Disapointment Cleaver. The Mount Rainier rangers knew the Yellowstone helicopter was in the area and requested it to respond after they evaluated the condition of the climber and considered the rescue alternatives.
short haul rescue

The other happened on August 27 after a snag struck a Chena Hotshot crew member while assigned to the Kelley fire on the Sawtooth National Forest in central Idaho. The rescue was performed by a Jackson, Wyoming Teton Interagency helicopter while the ship was assigned to the fire. The National Park Service describes this rescue:

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“…Immediately after the accident, the Chena superintendent requested a medical evacuation, prompting air attack to request an air ambulance and a hoist-capable helicopter. Hearing the radio traffic, a Teton Interagency Helitack crew member assigned to the helibase notified air attack that the crew and Helicopter N26HX, which was conducting water drops from a dip site near Helibase, were short-haul capable. Short-haul is a rescue technique where an individual is suspended below the helicopter on a 100 to 200 foot rope. This method allows a rescuer more direct access to an injured party, and it is often used in national parks like Grand Teton National Park in the Teton Range where conditions make it difficult to land a helicopter in the steep and rocky terrain. Patients are typically flown out via short-haul with a ranger attending to them below the helicopter.

Operations diverted the helicopter from a water bucket mission, and the crew began preparing for a short-haul. Pilot Chris Templeton and short-haul spotter Garth Wagner flew a reconnaissance mission. Tasks included locating a suitable insertion spot, conducting environmental and power checks, and determining that a short-haul mission was the appropriate tool. Based on the recon flight, the crew completed a short-haul and Green-Amber-Red (GAR) risk assessment, then readied for the mission. They configured the helicopter by removing the doors, attaching a “three-ring” backup to the cargo hook, and inspecting and attaching a 150-foot-long short haul rope to the cargo hook. They also checked the harnesses for the short-hauler and spotter, as well as the communication systems. A litter was prepared with a harness and attachment points.

While the helitack crew was preparing helicopter N26HX for short-haul, another helicopter delivered medical gear to the site of the injured firefighter. An EMT on the Chena Hotshots and other crew members prepared the patient for transport. The helicopter inserted short-hauler Ron Johnson, whose normal job is as a Jenny Lake climbing ranger at Grand Teton National Park, with a litter and line gear into the extraction site. Rescuers transported the patient on a spine board the 150 feet to the extraction site. Because the patient was already packaged, the helicopter extracted him and the short-hauler about 15 minutes after inserting Johnson on site. They were flown back to helibase where a team of Teton Helitack members caught the patient and litter and transferred him to an awaiting life-flight helicopter.

Teton Interagency Helicopter
Teton Interagency Helicopter. NPS photo.

During the week before the successful rescue mission, the Teton Helitack crew flew nearly three hours of short-haul training in typical terrain for pilot proficiency. Such proficiency training is required every 28 days, and in this case, the training was also essential in preparing the helitack crew to receive the patient and litter at helibase.

Using the short-haul method is relatively new to wildland fire, but is one of the preferred methods of rescue in the rugged terrain of several national parks, including Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Zion and Grand Canyon. The Yosemite Helitack crew performed a successful rescue earlier in August on the Green Ridge fire on the Deschutes National Forest.”