Safety in the Medevac Landing Zone

BY CHRISTOPHER M. DIVVER

Safety on the fireground is instilled in each firefighter from the beginning of probie school to the day of retirement. From the incident commander (IC) to the newest member, everyone is responsible for safe and effective fireground operations to ensure each member goes home at the end of the call or shift. Although safety is paramount on the fireground, we must all ensure safe operations at events to which we don’t respond frequently.

Numerous emergency medical services (EMS) throughout the country use helicopters to transport critically injured patients for treatment and from one hospital to another for more definitive care. With the increased use of medical evacuation (medevac) helicopters, firefighters must recognize the dangers inherent in rotary wing aircraft and properly establish the landing zone (LZ).

Although the size of the LZ may vary depending on the aeromedical program, the optimal LZ is at least 100 × 100 feet; is set on a firm, dry level surface that will not produce large amounts of dust and flying debris; and is clear of livestock and other wildlife. One of the most important steps for a fire department to take is to clear the LZ of all obstructions. The rotor wash can draw any loose material into the aircraft fuselage or the engine and cause damage. Flares, cones, and other markers placed too close to the LZ perimeter can become airborne projectiles if entrained by helicopter rotor wash and possibly injure or kill unsuspecting onlookers. Flares can also become incendiary in dry brush, adding to what may already be a hectic ordeal.

Nothing attracts a crowd like a medevac helicopter. Use law enforcement personnel or ancillary traffic control personnel at the LZ to assist in keeping onlookers and photographers a safe distance away.

The LZ coordinator should note any wires, poles, towers, and trees in the area of the LZ that could present a hazard for the aircraft on approach. Remember that electrical wires strung from poles are not visible from the air (Figure 1). All members in the area of the LZ should be in full personal protective equipment with helmets on, chin straps buckled and tightened, and face shields down for eye protection.

Figure 1. Landing Zone Setup

Source: Monmouth Ocean Hospital Service Corporation.
Source: Monmouth Ocean Hospital Service Corporation.

As with any call within a hazardous environment, good communications are paramount to ensure success. Once the LZ is established, provide the pilot or flight crew member with a detailed, accurate description of the LZ, including wind direction, overhead obstructions (e.g., power lines, communication towers, guy wires, and other aircraft visible from the LZ), and how the LZ is marked. Use cones during the day and strobes at night, placing them properly at each corner of the LZ. They are less likely to cause damage to the aircraft than other marking devices if caught up in the propeller wash.

The LZ details will give the flight crew greater situational awareness. When speaking to the incoming medevac, use clear text. The flight crew may not know 10 codes or other fire department-specific nomenclature, which will potentially lead to confusing messages. In describing the LZ, use compass point descriptions to advise the flight crew of potential hazards, as follows: “MONOC One from Bayville LZ, you have power lines one-quarter mile north of the LZ,” or “A cell tower is two miles south of our location.”

Making yourself visible to the air crew is also vitally important. Avoid parking apparatus under trees or other obstructions, and let the pilot or flight crew member know when you have the aircraft in sight. Once the pilot has the LZ in sight, he will fly past it to do an aerial reconnaissance, so don’t be alarmed if the craft flies past you. He will also be positioning the aircraft to fly into the wind for landing.

Stretching and charging a hoseline are not necessary. Although many departments have standard operating guidelines (SOGs) regarding this, a charged hoseline will inhibit rapid movement of the apparatus if that becomes necessary. In the unlikely event of an incident involving the aircraft on approach or departure from the LZ, the apparatus will be able to respond to assist the flight crew more quickly with a dry line than with a charged hoseline with the pump engaged. One caveat to this is in cases of severe, prolonged dry weather: If the ground is overly dry, the dust from the rotor wash may cause “brownout” conditions, which will envelop the aircraft in dust, making eye contact with those on the ground virtually impossible from within the cockpit. When establishing the LZ, the first-due engine company may, if time permits, charge a line and, using a tight fog pattern, wet down the entire landing zone to prevent brownout. Minimizing the amount of dust will also protect members who are outside the apparatus cab or ambulance from being struck by debris from the rotor wash.

Emergency lights on apparatus, ambulances, and command vehicles will help the flight crew to visualize the LZ, when parked along the LZ perimeter, especially at night. However, turn off headlights since they may blind the pilot as he approaches the ground. Although many aeromedical programs use night vision goggles (NVGs) to assist the flight crew during night flights, their application is limited and NVGs do not display all objects as they would be seen with the naked eye.

Specific task-oriented communications are essential from the LZ coordinator to the flight crew during nighttime scene landings to ensure the safety of members on the ground and in the aircraft.

With the various types of aircraft in use throughout the country, ground personnel should familiarize themselves with the aircraft their local providers use. Not only do the sizes of the fuselage vary, so, too, does the landing gear, from tires to skids. The landing gear determines the type of surface on which the helicopter can land.

The tail rotor is another aircraft variable. Some tail rotors are exposed; others are encapsulated in a fantail, making the blades nearly invisible. Once the aircraft is safely on the ground, assign a tail rotor observer to maintain a safe distance from the aircraft to ensure no one wanders into the danger zone behind the aircraft (photo 1).

Photo by Simon Bartlett, Med Trans Air Medical Transport.
Photo by Simon Bartlett, Med Trans Air Medical Transport.

Unless under emergency conditions, at no time should ANYONE approach the aircraft unless a flight crew member or pilot instructs that person to do so. If you need to approach the aircraft, ensure that you do so within full view of the pilot.

Not too many fire departments will have to establish a LZ regularly. Contact your local aeromedical provider to gain some insight into what pilots and flight crew members expect. Also ask which radio frequency you should use to communicate with the LZ coordinator. This will go a long way in establishing a well-planned and proficiently executed LZ to ensure mission critical tasks are completed in a timely fashion to guarantee the Golden Hour does not expire because of a lack of training and discipline.

CHRISTOPHER M. DIVVER, NREMT-P, is a 14-year veteran of and a lieutenant with the Clifton (NJ) Fire Department. A nationally registered paramedic and hazardous materials technician, he volunteers with the Berkeley Township (NJ) Emergency Response Team. Divver has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Columbia Southern University and is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration through Argosy University. He has helped implement his department’s water rescue program and has written proposals for successful federal grants.

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