Centralia ARES has been preparing for this training exercise for a couple of months and it all paid off last night. Working jointly with our served agency partner, Riverside Fire Authority and one of our medical evacuation professionals, Airlift Northwest, the team began the evening by setting up the non-designated helicopter landing zone (LZ) at the Southwest Washington Fair grounds. As approximately half the team worked to set the LZ, the other half played the part of injured patients with Riverside Fire aid crews as they worked through several scenarios prior to the arrival of the helicopter. Those exercises included patient evaluation, triage, care and patient transport to the landing zone.
During the time our “patients” were being cared for, the landing zone team began setting out the 100′ x 100′ LZ in a grassy field on the south end of the fairgrounds. LZ supervisor, James Van Ornum, AE7TF, worked with his team to document all overhead obstructions that could be a danger to the aircraft. For our LZ, these included power wires at the north end and 70 foot trees surrounding a little under half the landing zone. Four 28″ orange traffic cones were placed at the four corners of the LZ and two more were placed to indicate wind direction. Flashing Roadside Emergency Disks (FRED Lights) were then placed on top of the cones to made the landing zone easier to identify form the air. A foreign object (FOB) search for loose debris within and near the landing zone was the final preparation requirement.
Our final safety meeting, prior to arrival of the aircraft, included making sure everyone had reflective vests, eye protection and hearing protection. We talked through how we believed the exercise would unfold and covering, once again, assignments and radio frequencies. The safety plan also made sure every team member had an escape plan in case of catastrophic failure of the aircraft during landing or takeoff.
The team’s communications van, Comm II, was set up approximately 100′ north of the landing zone. Aircraft comms were conducted by Jim Pace, K7CEX, using the tactical call sign “LZ Command”. Also within Comm II, was the ground communications liaison, Lyle Olmsted, KB7PI. Since the aircraft communications used a radio frequency (V Tac 11) authorized by Riverside Fire Authority to talk with the aircraft and since the rest of the team were using an amateur radio simplex frequency among the ground crew on the LZ, Lyle’s job was to be sure each knew what the other was doing.
With designated ground crews at each cone on the landing zone and extra team members assigned to block nearby streets, a comms check was conducted with each team member while the safety officer walked the LZ asking each team member to give his or her escape plan and making one last visual inspection for eye and ear protection.
At almost exactly 8 pm, we heard the aircraft approaching from the north. Aircraft communicator, Jim Pace, contacted the pilot and began to give him approach information and a pilot briefing which included type of landing zone (grassy field), known obstacles (trees and power lines) wind direction (from the north) as well as Latitude and Longitude coordinates. With a “on final approach” from the pilot, the helicopter settled to the ground for a beautiful landing.
After shutting down the aircraft, the ARES volunteers and fire department personnel were allowed to inspect the aircraft. The flight crew answered all our questions and worked with the fire teams for some hands on practice on inserting patient gurneys into the aircraft. The pilot spent some time with us discussing landing zone preparation and aircraft safety from his point of view.
An hour later, and with darkness upon us, it was time for the helicopter to leave. The LZ supervisor directed team members back to their positions and once the landing zone was again secure, informed the aircraft communicator the area was clear for takeoff. With a final reminder to the pilot about obstructions around the LZ, the aircraft lifted off and headed back to their base in Olympia.
Two interesting things happened that were unexpected but for which we had previously trained. The first came about simply due to the time the aircrew spent on the ground answering questions. This required a nighttime takeoff out of the landing zone. Our team had previously practiced for both a complete nighttime landing and takeoff so we were ready for an aircraft takeoff in almost total darkness. The helicopter had no difficulties, lifting off and once above the trees, departed the area.
The second happened when it was discovered that one of our team members had lost his glasses somewhere in the very large grassy field that was the landing zone. Now that the aircraft was gone and it was dark, we needed to find them. Several years back, the team had practiced performing evidence searches using a “line abreast” search pattern, so with flashlights in hand, we set up a search line, approximately six feet apart and began a slow, methodical ground search for a pair of lost glasses. Within minutes, the glasses were located and returned to the owner.
When an exercise of this complexity comes together it is an amazing feeling. As volunteers, we appreciate the opportunity to put our training to use. There isn’t any paycheck at the end of day but looking into the eyes of dedicated team members who are tired and often sweaty but who know they have just completed a job well done is very, very rewarding.
Thank you all for everything you do for our community.