Deviation from policy may have saved firefighter’s life

Freezeout Ridge Fire
Freezeout Ridge Fire, September 21, 2014. InciWeb photo.

Managers on the Freezeout Ridge Fire in Idaho made a conscious decision on September 21 to deviate from aviation policy in order to potentially save the life of a very seriously injured firefighter. The individual was knocked unconscious by a falling snag and suffered from severe head injuries including a skull fracture, broken jaw, lacerations to the face and head, two broken arms, dislocated thumb, and minor burns.

The aircraft, (Aerospatiale AS350B3) and pilot designated as the medivac helicopter were carded for short-haul operations, however, due to the lack of Department of Interior crew members the ship was not officially short-haul capable at the time. With sunset approaching, the decision was made to long-line the patient to a helispot where he could be transferred to the interior of a helicopter and from there transported to the helibase, and then via air ambulance to the hospital.

Because of the deviation from policy, a Safecom was filed:

At 1845 while assisting a communications tech in setting up a remote command repeater I was the helicopter manager and overheard a call to Air Attack from Div Y to advise him that a firefighter had been struck by a snag. It was identified as a serious accident with life threatening injuries. We were assigned as the medevac aircraft for the incident. Our pilot and aircraft are carded for short-haul operations, however, due to the lack of DOI crew members we were not short-haul capable at the time.

The communication tech and I began moving towards the aircraft in case we were needed. Air Attack was unable to fill an order for an extraction helicopter locally in the time frame needed, therefore we were asked to assist with the medevac. At approximately 1855 we departed the repeater site and flew to the helibase. The patient update that was relayed from the accident site was that the patient was unconscious, but breathing, and needed immediate extraction.

At 1915 we landed at the helibase to reconfigure the aircraft for a medevac and to pick up the paramedic to take with us to the accident site. The Type 1 crew with the injured crewmember began to construct a helispot immediately after the accident and Div Y informed Air Attack that the helispot was close to being finished around 1930. After a recon and a thorough risk assessment by the pilot and helicopter manager it was determined that the spot was too dangerous for landing due to snags and logs in the LZ.

The pilot and manager agreed that the only way to get the patient to definitive care before nightfall was to long line the patient to H2 and then load the patient internally to be transported to the Helibase to meet an air ambulance. We landed at H2 at approximately 1950 and configured for a long line mission, the patient was packaged in a TRS {Traverse Rescue Stretcher} with the extraction four point harness.

Personnel at the accident site had been trained and were familiar with how to rig the TRS for helicopter extraction. The aircraft lifted with a 150 ft long line and remote hook to be received by Div Y to be hooked up to the TRS with the patient. The accident location and the helispot were located 1/4 mile apart with several hundred feet of elevation gain in steep rugged terrain. The pilot lifted the patient and flew back to H2 to be received by the helicopter manager and paramedic. Due to limited daylight {“Pumpkin time“ was 2013} the patient was loaded internally immediately and flown to Helibase. We landed at 2012 and the patient was attended to by numerous EMTs and Paramedics until the air ambulance arrived at 2028. The patient was transferred to the air ambulance crew and departed for the hospital at about 2100 hrs.

This event highlights the need to expedite the development of policy to ensure agency contracted helicopters and agency personnel have the capabilities and training to perform extraction missions for injured agency personnel.

LESSONS LEARNED: Due to the lack of policy support, agency personnel worked within the Forest Service Doctrine Framework to make decisions to do what was needed to preserve life. The decision was made by subject matter experts utilizing the risk management process to assess hazards and make timely decisions based on the capabilities of the crew involved. There was support from the Incident Management Team and local unit/agency to do what was necessary to save a life despite having to deviate from policy. Many things went well on this incident that contributed to the successful outcome for the patient and others involved including: having discussions prior to the accident as to how to evacuate a seriously injured firefighter, using the right crews for the tasks at hand, supporting doctrine operations in the event of life threats, and supporting the crews involved with CISM if needed.

Here is a photo of a Traverse Rescue Stretcher.

The official “72 Hour Report” is at Wildfire Today.

9 thoughts on “Deviation from policy may have saved firefighter’s life”

  1. Why was there a lack of DOI crew members?

    I remember that if there was not a complete module…the ship becomes grounded

    Nice work

    Even in the US Armed Forces there is policy deviation for life threatening issues…

    Do not even know why this is even an issue unless an Agency is inflexible that it can not operate without reading every line in the policy..

    Again why was there a shortage of crewmembers? There are plenty o AD’s in the ROSS system

    Lack of crewmembers? Someone ought to be looking into that!!

  2. Leo, I believe what they meant was not that the ship was understaffed, but that particular ship works at an interagency base, some of the DOI employees are trained in Short Haul, but the Forest Service employees are not yet, but that will likely change soon, possibly next year. When the ship leaves its home unit, sometimes there are short haul trained individuals that go with, and sometimes not. Bottom line, the aircraft and pilot are always trained and qualifed, but due to rotation of the module members they may or may not be fully qualified to accomplish a “legal” shorthaul mission. Kudos to them for taking on the responsibility and risk to save a life.

  3. Hunter

    I understand the carding process very well for aircraft and pilots as well as the FAA requirements for these contract missions

    This further proves the the USFS is behind DOI requirements in short haul

    In reality, this further reinforces the need for ONE agency that has been advertised here and in the world for approximately 30 years the need for ONE agency with across the board standardization.

    Sort of like extraction, a new science to the LMA world…….not so much in the other world of US Armed forces and some civilian / state and local agency who do this for a living

    Maybe the USFS ought to take a short course from the professionals who do this every day. I DO real this will come at a cost from the contractor and in the future the USFS had better expect this coming in the future

    Thinking short haul and MEDEVAC do not come with personnel, education and training requirements like pilots and mechanics ( and even this varies by contractor)…..well like many things in the USFS, pretty shortsighted.

  4. It’s always the unexpected things that brings out the productive and positive approach of people doing more then they even expected in an abnormal situation. I know one guy that appreciates all those that helped, GREAT job by all!

  5. I’m happy to see that the personnel involved did the right thing to preserve the life of the injured firefighter. Additionally, nice job on the writing of the Safecom.

  6. I was manager on several missions where we had to break rules but it was always done consulting with the pilot and supervisor, along with some sort of risk analysis/matrix. There were more times I did not break the rules because the risk was just too great. Glad the people involved on this did the right thing.

  7. I’m glad to see that the Pilot was all for saving this person. Sometimes deviating from a policy, rule is for the best. In this case, saving a firefighter so this person could go back to their family. Sure a safe com is needed but now at least there is a heads up about a future situation such as this.

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