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Helicopter training seminar aims to prevent tragedy

Emergency crews practice loading a patient onto a waiting helicopter Tuesday evening at the Park Rapids airport. More than 50 police, deputies, firefighters and EMTs participated in the training. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

Recently at an accident scene an inexperienced cop directed a tow truck into the safety zone of a waiting air ambulance.

The tow driver hopped out and raced behind the chopper onto the scene.

What he and the cop didn't know was that both could have been pureed by the helicopter's whirling tail rotor. At 2,070 revolutions per minute, the blades were invisible and highly lethal. The pilot couldn't see the men. Personnel on the scene were too busy attending to the injured to keep their own out of harm's way.

That's why 50 emergency medical technicians, cops, deputies and firefighters were put through a helicopter safety-training course Tuesday night in Park Rapids. The aim was to prevent the rescuers from quickly becoming victims.

North Memorial puts on several training seminars throughout the region. With Air Care in Bemidji, Brainerd, Princeton, Redwood Falls and Minneapolis, as the likelihood of air ambulance services increases, so does the danger of working around helicopters.

Emergency personnel were told that hazardous materials situations probably aren't the best times to call in an air ambulance, because the whirling rotors tend to disperse toxic vapors from contaminated areas into non-contaminated ones.

Serious injuries, burns, falls, limb amputations and near drownings usually require an air evacuation, said Deb Fischer, a former EMT who now trains personnel.

"We're not here to sell you helicopters," she said. "We're here to take patients where it's appropriate, to do what's in the patient's best interest."

A helicopter flying at speeds between 160 and 220 miles an hour can get a patient to a trauma center much faster under most circumstances than a ground ambulance, she said.

North Memorial operates a fleet of Italian helicopters, costing $4 million apiece.

"We chose them for speed," Fischer said." They burn jet fuel and can fly 2 miles a minute. The cost of the flight is billed to the patient.

Emergency responders practiced carrying a spine board to a waiting chopper.

"This is the time to do it rather than 2 a.m. when you get your butt hauled out of bed," she said to understanding nods.

Responders learned how to set up a landing zone and manage it through a coordinator, keeping wind speed, power lines and other dangers in perspective. At night a helicopter can't see any hidden dangers, Fischer said. Even in the daytime, pilots will need to be given reference points so they can safely land.

"Never approach a helicopter when it's starting up and shutting down," Fischer said. A phenomenon called "droop stop" can cause rotor blades to dip significantly lower than their normal 7 feet clearance, to waist high level.

She cautioned emergency personnel not to carry objects such as IV gear above their heads for fear the blades will suck it out of their reach. Hats and sunglasses go into pockets before approaching a helicopter that can generate wind speeds of 140 mph underneath.

And paramedics on the scene should leave patients in an ambulance until the air crew can come to them. Fischer said emergency personnel can't carry on a meaningful patient dialog underneath the whirling blades of a helicopter.

Crews are trained to land, get a patient loaded feet first and get back in the air in under 10 minutes.

But the most important lesson was keeping a perimeter safe. Fischer recounted tales of panicked parents, relatives or children rushing into the helicopter's safety zone at accident scenes. A landing coordinator should always be designated just to control those situations, she said.

"When Mom and Dad show up they're not going to be thinking of safety," she said.

"It's good to know these things," said Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer. "We have some liability every time we set a helicopter down."

The trainees left and universally hoped their training would never be put to use.

But realistically, they know it will be.