Only a drill: Rescue exercise tests skills on rugged Ripshin Mountain
So, what happens when the rescuers need rescuing?
Wings Air Rescue found out Thursday.
In a surprise drill, emergency crews were put through the paces on rugged Ripshin Mountain when a story worthy of a television drama unfolded.
Actually, it was a staged event, but in the initial minutes only a handful of participants knew that.
A Wings helicopter was sent to Roan Mountain to find and treat a missing person; then the chopper suddenly dropped off the radar on Ripshin Mountain, and rescue teams had to react.
The missing person was a fiction, as was the scenerio. Instead of crashing, the helicopter landed in a clearing about three miles from the nearest paved road.
Because only a handful of people knew about the drill before it started, the initial reactions were real.
A second helicopter was dispatched to find the lost aircraft, and Carter County EMS/Rescue assumed the task of using coordinates from the second helicopter to find the first, then recover the injured crew using all-terrain vehicles to climb up the mountain using logging roads.
“This was very much a learning exercise for us, to figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are for handling a situation like this,” said Keith Treadway, Regional Aviation Manager for Wings Air Rescue and for Med-Trans, which provides the aviation components for Wings. Mountain States Health Alliance employs the medical staff on the helicopters.
The exercise was in the works for longer than many television stations are on the air: Planning for the exercise started two years ago. Not long ago, the teams ran through a “table-top exercise,” going through the steps for the drill without actually sending anyone out on the mountain – focusing instead on the communication process.
On Thursday, the table top turned into a mountain.
“From doing this, we can evaluate how prepared we are,” Treadway said. “We’re required to do regular exercises twice a year, but today is the first time we’ve done something of this magnitude, to simulate a Wings aircraft going down.”
To prevend confusion and false responses, communication was away from main radio channels. The Wings helicopter landed in a Ripshin Mountain clearing more than 4,400 feet up.
The crew’s script involved unloading key gear as though the helicopter had done a hard landing and was damaged, with one of the crew suffering from chest pain. They treated the distressed crew member, set up a shelter, built a fire and worked to signal the next Wings helicopter – but were not permitted to use their radio to send coordinates.
“The exercise called for the med crew to have to shut down the aircraft and care for the pilot,” said Will Fritz, Wings 3 base leader and an evaluator for the exercise. “They have to go into survival mode and the craft is considered inaccessible. Then it called for a second crewman to suffer a broken arm, so they have to deal with that, as well.”
The only thing the second helicopter crew knew was that the first one had disappeared in the vicinity of Roan Mountain State Park. Finding the downed aircraft was a task as rugged as the thousands of acres of terrain – particularly since Wings is primarily an air ambulance, not a search-and-rescue service.
Once they found the “missing” helicopter, the rescuers radioed coordinates, which were used by Carter County EMS to climb the mountain and find the location. Carter County EMS/Rescue sent eight people to the site, and an incident command center was set up down the mountain on Tiger Creek Road to monitor the teams’ progress.
The drill was a test of the dispatch crew, the communications process, the helicopter search team and the EMS rescue team. It was also a test for the crew that “crashed” on the mountaintop – of their survival skills and to see whether the Wings survival kits contained the right gear, including the proper clothing, food and water.
“We have close ties with Carter County EMS,” Treadway said. “We have a Wings base at the airport in Elizabethton and we’ve worked with them a lot of times. This just strengthens the bond we have with them.”