At 6 AM on a gorgeous spring day I woke up on the wrong coast in a supremely comfortable hotel bed. I had a private room in a Spanish style hostel just south of Fort Lauderdale. A cool breeze rustled the palms outside my window as it wandered in through the screen. It was my first day in Florida, and I had a nearly irresistible urge to stay in that luxurious bed all day. Or maybe I could spend some time wandering down to the beach, just a block away. Between this and the dreaded first-day-of-school feeling I had, I nearly called Captain Suarez and cancelled my ride-along.
I am a firefighter and an Air Rescue Medic in San Bernardino County, California, where San Bernardino County Fire (SBCOFD) and the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department recently completed a year long pilot program which integrated fire department paramedics into the existing Sheriff’s Aviation Division to create an Air Rescue unit capable of everything from incident command and vehicle extrication, to hoist rescues, patient transports, water drops, fire mapping and more.
Needless to say, I was very excited when I was given the opportunity to train with firefighters from Miami-Dade Fire Rescue (MDFR) in Florida, a department that has been doing air rescue for decades.
But, by the time I dragged myself out from under those cool sheets, I didn’t have much time to get ready and my hands were shaking. My stomach was in knots. I grabbed a pastry and some coffee and headed for MDFR’s Air Rescue South. I sipped on the coffee and tried to choke down my pastry while I drove. Thanks to my ignorance of Miami traffic, a trip that I thought would take me less than an hour, took me two and a half. Oddly, navigating more than two hours of rush hour traffic in a strange city took my mind of the ride-along and calmed my nerves considerably. As did the Captain’s response when I called to tell him that I was going to be incredibly late. He just laughed and said, Welcome to Miami!
When I arrived, several members of the aviation division were preparing for a day of hoist training. As in San Bernardino County, members complete hoist training every 90 days in order to maintain currency. One of MDFR’s four Bell 412 helicopters sat on the pad ready for action.
As opposed to the San Bernardino County operation, MDFR has chosen to use an externally mounted hoist system. This frees up a lot of useful space inside the helicopter, but makes their hoist evolutions more difficult. Back in California we use an internally mounted hoist which is secured inside the right gunwale. The hook is attached to an arm which can be rotated 180 degrees from the rear of the gunwale, to a position outside the aircraft, and on into the main cabin area where victims and crew are then secured for flight.
The day’s training included the use of a rescue strop, a device that I was first introduced to at the hoisting prop inside MDFR’s hangar. This device has a small padded collar that is placed around a victim’s chest under their arms. Another strap runs between the victim’s legs and is attached at a collection point in front of the victim. The victim and the rescuer are then attached to the hook and hoisted into the aircraft, where the victim is belted into the right gunwale and taken off the hook. Since I was going to play the victim in this training exercise, I got up close and personal with the strop. (I am not a fan!)
After a practice round on the prop, things got real. The Captain and I drove out to a gladed area at the far end of the airport. I was pretty sure that an alligator was going to jump out of the bushes any minute! The vegetation was thick, and just tall enough that you cannot see any of the surrounding buildings or landmarks. Civilization simply disappeared, even though we were probably no more than a quarter-of-a-mile from the hanger. I couldn’t believe how remote the location felt, and right then I understood how someone could easily get lost in Florida and need rescue.
As Air Rescue South came in and settled into the pocket, I got a glimpse into what it feels like for the people we rescue. One of MDFR’s Air Rescue Medics was lowered down to me on the thin steel cable. Soon the strop was biting into my rib cage as virtual strangers with unfamiliar equipment began lifting me into the air beneath the green and white helicopter. It’s loud and the rotor-wash is intense. Even though the strop feels like it may crush your rib cage, it does not feel like it is going to hold your weight. And, the whole operation is completely out of my control. Not that I thought I was in any danger. After all, it was easy to recognize the professionalism of these crews. But, just for a moment, I had a glimpse of the kind of trust that the public has to put in us when we come to their rescue.
After training was a quick lunch. And shortly after lunch my adventure with MDFR ended with the transport of a 2-year-old child who had fallen from a second story window. Air Rescue South was dispatched to a makeshift landing zone in a park near the scene, and then transported the patient to Miami Children’s Hospital where a trauma team could care for him.
When we returned to base, I said goodbye to my new friends. Throughout the day I had noted many more similarities between our two departments than differences. Most importantly, the level of professionalism and attention to detail is equal on either coast. The members of Air Rescue South went on with their shift, and I went on with my vacation. Happily, the beach was still there when I got back! And, I am truly grateful to the members of MDFR for their open-hearted hospitality and excellent training.
Jennifer DeShon currently serves as a Firefighter/Paramedic with San Bernardino County Fire. She has been in the fire service for 21 years. She is trained as an Urban Search and Rescue Technician and an Air Rescue Medic, and holds an AS degree in Paramedicine. She lives in Lake Arrowhead, California.