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).
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.