FIRE DEPARTMENT RESPONSE TO HELICOPTER EMERGENCIES

BY JERRY KNAPP, CHRISTOPHER FLATLEY, AND WAYNE SUTHERLAND

Structural fire departments across the country routinely are called to assist with landing zones (LZs) for medical evacuation air ambulance missions, VIP standbys, and helicopter emergencies. Firefighters think they are ready for anything, but responding to calls involving helicopters requires some unique understanding, specialized training, and planning. The safety of flight crews, patients, responders, and the community are at risk at these calls.

The medical evacuation helicopter has been one of the greatest life-saving tools at our disposal, and it also creates situations in which structural firefighters interface with aircraft in the firefighters’ first-due response area. About 750 air ambulances are operating in the United States today. They carry approximately 400,000 patients a year. Recently, the number of crashes involving these helicopters has increased dramatically. According to a USA Today report (July 18, 2005): “Since 2000, 60 people have died in 84 crashes-more than double the number of crashes during the previous five years. During that period, more than 10 percent of the U.S. air ambulance fleet crashed.”

We know from experience that bringing a helicopter into and out of a hastily devised landing zone, often with poor lighting, poor visibility, and poor weather conditions, is very risky. This article will provide some suggestions designed to improve your operations and safety at these incidents. First, however, let’s look at some considerations that are integral to safe helicopter-landing operations.

AIRCRAFT FLYING OVER YOUR COMMUNITY

You may be surprised by the number and types of helicopters flying over your response area. They include the medical evacuation helicopter, probably the most familiar to you. In many parts of the country, the fire department is called to set up landing zones and to stand by for incoming and departing medevac helicopters from emergency scenes. In places subject to wildland fires, engine companies routinely are assigned to establish helispots where helicopter water tanks are filled and refueled and to facilitate the transporting of personnel to and from remote fire lines.


(1) This Bell Jet Ranger, owned and operated by the Rockland County (NY) Helicopter Emergency Lift Program (HELP), is a good example of a standard civilian helicopter. Except for some unique designs, most helicopters have this relatively basic standard configuration. The main rotor is at the top of the aircraft and has two to five rotor blades. The swath they cover is called the ‘rotor disc.’ The main rotors are attached to the drive shaft, which runs through the transmission and indirectly connects the rotor head and the engine. A tail rotor at the rear counters the torque of the main rotor.

If nearby cities or counties operate fire/rescue helicopters, it’s possible they will be flying over your jurisdiction to and from other emergencies or responding to your request for helicopter assistance. They may be used for dropping water on wildland or even some large structure fires and for conducting technical rescues or swiftwater and flood-rescue operations, or they may be EMS medevacs. Fire/rescue helicopters are typically of the medium-rated variety and capability [see the “U.S. Forest Service Field Operations Guide” or the “California Office of Emergency Services Field Operations Guide” (ICS 420-1) for information on helicopter types.] If you are near a metropolitan area, news helicopters will quickly be flying over your larger and more challenging emergency scenes. News and traffic helicopters are a major presence in television and radio news and traffic reporting. Metro police departments may also have an aviation unit within a range that includes your first-due area. State police or National Park police agencies may also have aviation units that may be within the range of your jurisdiction, whether requested or unsolicited.


(2) The engine is high on the air frame of a Bell Jet Ranger helicopter.

Departments near a coastline, ports, major inland lakes, or navigable waterways may see U.S. Coast Guard patrol or rescue helicopters. Military helicopters have relatively long-range capability and may traverse your area. Recently, a Black Hawk helicopter made an emergency landing in a school field when an indicator light signaled a potential mechanical problem. The aircraft subsequently took off without incident, but the event raised some eyebrows and questions such as, “What do we do if that thing comes down in our area?”

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations permit a pilot to deviate from regulations in an emergency-for example, the pilot may fly lower or faster or land in areas where it normally would not be permitted.

Commercial helicopters acting as airborne cranes may also be operating in your area from time to time-during the construction or renovation of new shopping centers or other larger buildings, for example. In this case, the most cost-effective way to lift and place new HVAC units on the roof is to use heavy-lift helicopters. These events usually are well planned, and you may have several weeks notice.

Another type of commercial helicopter you may see is operated by or contracted to a utility company to inspect electric transmission lines and gas pipelines. In January 2001 in New City, New York, a helicopter providing aerial reconnaissance for electric transmission lines declared an emergency and landed in a grocery store parking lot. According to one news report, the pilot set the aircraft down because of the activation of an engine warning light.

Of course, if you are near an airport or in the flight path of commercial civilian aviation helicopters, you will frequently see the same aircraft, often on scheduled flights.

Dignitaries often fly by helicopter from airports to public appearances, conferences, and other engagements. The President, governors, and other dignitaries often use helicopters for mid-range transportation.

HELICOPTER CONSTRUCTION

Just as structural fire departments must understand the construction of a building, firefighters who respond to helicopter emergencies must understand at least the basic anatomy of a helicopter.

According to Ed Weireter, a pilot for Rockland County Helicopter Emergency Lift Program (HELP): “The pilot controls the flight of the aircraft by tilting the rotor blades to achieve more lift (pitch). The engine operates at a constant speed. By moving the cyclic stick, which tilts the rotor disc, the pilot can direct the aircraft in any direction. The main rotor obviously moves in a circular motion, resulting in a significant amount of torque being applied, which will cause the aircraft to spin uncontrollably. To counter this spin, the tail rotor essentially pushes the aircraft to counter the torque of the main rotor, thus allowing controllable flight.”

POWER

One or more engines, usually located high on the airframe, power the rotors. The engine is commonly a turbine engine that produces a high power-to-weight ratio, which makes operation of the aircraft cost effective.

Controlling and distributing the power is the transmission, or gear box, located under the engines at the rear or on top of the passenger compartment.

CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS

To save weight, aircraft use lightweight metals such as magnesium, titanium, and aluminum. Generally, they are used as structural components in landing gear, the airframe, and major engine components. These metals can present firefighters with the following challenges:

• Magnesium-lightweight, silvery-white metal that melts and ignites at approximately 1,200°F. It will burn violently and explosively when water is applied to burning metal and will require specialized extinguishing agents such as MET-L-X and G-1 powder.

• Titanium-a silvery-gray metal that is as strong as ordinary steel. Although lightweight, it presents significant extrication challenges.

• Aluminum-lightweight; will melt at 700°F to 800°F and lose structural strength.

FUEL

Helicopter fuel is often misunderstood by firefighters. The turbine engine uses a fuel called “jet A,” a kerosene-type fuel. Most helicopter fuel is much more like diesel fuel than gasoline. It has a low flame spread, a relatively high flash point, and a narrow flammable range.


The common misconception is that helicopter fuel is highly volatile, much like a high-grade gasoline. This is true for aviation gasoline, the type you may find in small planes at your local airport (generally 100-octane gasoline).


(3) Black outline shows limits of fuel tank; filler port is in upper left of highlighted area.

Crash-induced fuel fires can occur when fuel cells, usually located in the floor of the aircraft, are punctured. Some fuel cells have rubber bladders, which reduce the potential for fuel leaks.

GENERAL HELICOPTER DANGERS

The tail rotor spins at six to 20 times (depending on model and type) the speed of the main rotor and is essentially invisible when turning. The tail rotor is generally low enough to be a danger to an individual. If not for the stop action view of the camera, the tail rotor would be just about invisible when spinning at high speed. Obviously, it is important to keep people away from this danger.

MAIN ROTOR DANGERS

A helicopter pilot maneuvers the rotors to move the aircraft in the direction he wants it to go. Moving and tilting the main rotor and rotor disc forward cause the helicopter to move forward. As shown in photo 4, the pilot can fly the main rotor down in the front low enough to injure anyone within the rotor disc coverage area. This is the reason for the old safety adage that you should make eye contact with the pilot so he knows you have entered the danger area.


(4) The tail rotor represents one of the primary dangers of working around or loading/unloading an operating, even idling, helicopter. Its low position on the aircraft and high speed make the tail rotor practically invisible, making it obviously important that all personnel keep a safe distance from it. When establishing safety and security positions, it is essential to assign someone to this position to ensure personnel keep a safe distance from the rotor.

Helicopters landing, sitting, and taking off in hilly terrain can be a danger to personnel approaching from the uphill side. Personnel coming “downhill” toward an operating helicopter may walk directly into the spinning main rotor (or even the tail rotor). There are some general “Never” rules:


(5) The rotor blades fly horizontal to the ground. They are well above an average person’s height and present little danger to persons walking under them.

• Never walk downhill toward a helicopter. Always approach from the downhill side, or on the flat ground, approaching from a 45° angle in front of the aircraft (where the pilot can see you at all times) or as directed by a helicopter crew person.

• Never approach an operating helicopter from the rear, and never go aft of the cabin doors unless directed by a helicopter crew person or the pilot.


(6) Shown here is the result of the pilot’s pushing the cyclic stick forward, causing the rotors to fly downward in the front. This creates an obvious danger to firefighters working near the helicopter. The rotor will fly lower than shown in this photo and presents a deadly hazard to firefighters near the aircraft.

• Never depart a helicopter walking uphill (possibly into the main rotors).

• Never approach a helicopter until signaled to do so by the pilot or crew.

• Never carry hand tools or other long objects in the vertical position. Never toss or throw any object (like a hand radio) from or toward a helicopter because of the danger from the main rotor.

• Never stand with feet directly next to a skid landing gear (because it can suddenly “spread” and end up on top of your foot).

• Never allow smoking within 200 feet.

There are also some “Always” rules:

• Always wear goggles or other eye protection.

• Always keep authorized vehicles and personnel at least 100 feet from the helicopter unless they are signaled to approach closer.


(7) This photo, taken with a zoom lens, dramatically demonstrates the danger of the main rotor blades when they are not in their horizontal position.

• Always keep spectators and other vehicles at least 200 feet away.

ROTOR WASH

Rotor wash is a constant danger to firefighters during landing zone operations. A good generalization is that rotor wash is approximately 70 mph. The speed and volume will vary with the helicopter type, but the speed is such that it makes dangerous projectiles out of gravel, trash, and other loose items. According to USAR Specialist Captain Larry Collins of the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department (LACoFD): “Another good approximation is that operating near or below an operating helicopter is like operating in a hurricane. This is especially true when operating beneath a hovering helicopter (during technical rescues and swiftwater rescues, for example). Generally speaking, the larger the aircraft, the more intense the rotor wash.”

In 2004, the Orangeburg (NY) Fire Department was dispatched to set up an LZ for a medevac flight. Chief Pete Byrne explains what happened: “The LZ was at a middle school in the neighboring fire district. That department was operating in a race for life extricating a young car accident victim who had hit a tree head on. We had never set up there before this call; the area was unfamiliar to us. Additionally, the timing of the aircraft made the situation worse. We had just set the LZ up when the helicopter made its final descent.”

Byrne continues: “When the helicopter came in, my chief’s car was hit with a 4 × 4 piece of plywood driven up by the rotor wash. Thankfully, no one was injured, but the flying plywood just about took off the light bar. The plywood was used by grounds maintenance people to form a ramp to get the lawn equipment over the curb. We learned an important lesson about loose items on the LZ that day.”

As a result of this call, new, proactive procedures were established to improve the safety of LZs. According to Byrne, the air ambulance the department uses has a flight time of seven minutes from its base to the district. It is not enough time to dispatch the fire department, have it respond, and have it properly and thoroughly set up the LZ. The department changed its standard operating procedure (SOP) so that when an air ambulance is put on standby, a town fire department is dispatched to establish an LZ, regardless of whether the aircraft is eventually flown or not. Byrne notes that it is better to gain the extra time and risk a few “no flies” than to constantly be racing against the helicopter to establish a safe LZ.

ONBOARD DANGERS

Using our Bell Jet Ranger as an example, there are other onboard dangers to consider. First, there are the fuel and lubricating oils. Although not especially volatile, the oils will burn if heated. Additionally, they get very hot during the high speeds generated by the transmission and other mechanical systems and could leak during a crash and burn the air crew or rescue firefighters.

A helicopter with flotation pontoons also contains one or more cylinders of compressed nitrogen, for inflation (photo 9). These bottles are 3,000 psi and should be treated with the same respect as a pressurized SCBA bottle. Pressurized containers of this type and pressure present obvious hazards in crash scenarios.

Another hazard on police and medevac helicopters may be a high-power light. The light has 30-million candlepower and generates enough heat to melt asphalt if left on for even a short time after landing.

HELO STANDBY

Why is the fire department called to stand by during a helicopter landing? “In case something goes wrong” is the usual answer. For example, in the LACoFD, Collins says it’s standard protocol to dispatch an engine company as a “helicopter safety” unit whenever one of its helicopters (or that of another agency) is making a landing on the emergency scene for an EMS medevac or other purpose. The incident commander (IC) requests the additional engine as “Helicopter Safety.” The IC also has the option of assigning another unit with firefighting and extrication capabilities as the Helicopter Safety Unit.

In Rockland County, New York, the countywide SOP is the same. According to Gordon Wren, Rockland County Director of Emergency Services, “We think it is critical to have the fire department be part of the landing zone operation. When a fire department unit is on the scene, we have a high degree of confidence that the landing zone will be established safely and in accordance with our protocols. When something does go wrong-a bad landing, for example-a coordinated and effective response is initiated immediately. The operation is risky not only to the air crew but to civilians in the area as well.”

Other fire departments across the nation have established similar protocols.

SOME COMMON CAUSES AND EFFECTS OF HELICOPTER CRASHES

Following are some common causes of helicopter crashes.

Hastily established landing zone. Takeoffs and landings are much safer at airfields than in supermarket parking lots. The airfield is designed for aircraft traffic, not shopping carts. It has some hazards such as light poles, wires, and tall trees, for example, but the flight crew has practiced landing and taking off repeatedly at the airfield. On the other hand, in most cases, it is probably the first time the crew has landed in the supermarket parking lot in your town. Additionally, the lighting conditions at a hastily established LZ will not be good, and wind direction and weather conditions may not be available.

Rotors striking trees, wires, or utility/light poles. According to a USA Today report, four people aboard a medical transportation helicopter en route to the hospital from a highway accident died in July 2004 when the helicopter struck nearby trees and crashed seconds after taking off with the patient.

Loss of control. Pilot error, the aircraft’s striking an object, mechanical failure, or high winds pushing the helicopter can cause a crash. Once the pilot loses control of the aircraft, it is very difficult to regain control and land safely. A typical scenario would have rotor parts flying in various directions at once while the aircraft swings wildly like an uncontrolled pendulum. The flying rotor parts and falling aircraft present serious hazards to firefighters too close to the LZ. It is vitally important to protect your firefighters by using your fire apparatus as a shield from flying rotor parts and other debris.

In a highly publicized crash in New York, a news helicopter lost control and ended up on the roof of a building. The aircraft was a total loss, but the crew survived. Significant structural damage was done to the top-floor apartment: Full-dimension rafters were broken, causing ceilings to collapse and damage the contents of the apartment. Had the occupants been home, they would have been injured.

CRASH SCENARIOS

Frequently, the aircraft will crash and roll onto its roof. The engine is the heaviest part of the aircraft. The engine is located on top of the fuselage and may cause it to roll over. During a crash, plan for and expect the aircraft to be upside-down when the dust clears. Consequently, this may require that you use tools, such as ladders, to access and remove victims or vehicle stabilization systems to stabilize the aircraft during the rescue operation. Remember that in a water landing, the helicopter will roll immediately on landing if it is not equipped with flotation pontoons.


(8) When the crash occurs onto adjacent structures, the response is complicated by possible collapse and fire in the building, additional victims inside the structure, and difficult access to the crash site, in addition to the standard fire suppression and rescue tasks. These factors should be considered when establishing landing zones in and around occupied school buildings. Altering or limiting the approach and departure paths may mitigate some of these issues, affording safety to the school occupants. (Photo courtesy of the Fire Department of New York.)

If a helicopter crashes while hovering, it typically will fall like a rock unless the pilot can gain some forward speed as soon as he notices trouble. If you are operating beneath a helicopter, expect it to fall straight down if the pilot experiences a power loss from an engine (unless it’s a twin-engine copter, in which case it still might come down depending on the situation and his reserve power) or if there is a strike or other mishap. If this happens, rotors and other debris will be flying.

Limit the number of personnel operating beneath the helicopter. Make sure they know that they need to drop to the ground and cover their heads and faces, preferably facing away from the copter, if a mishap occurs. Running away makes you a bigger target for flying debris. If you are dangling beneath the helicopter conducting a hoist rescue or a short-haul operation, you are necessarily directly beneath the copter. The result will be fairly predictable if the helicopter gets in trouble, unless the pilot or crew cuts you loose when the pilot attempts to save the aircraft (which is entirely within the pilot’s right). In this case, your outcome will depend on how high you are, what’s located below you, your PPE, and so on.

The point is that we should expect and plan for off-LZ crash scenarios and that those plans should cover conditions that might occur at such events. For example, some departments insist on stretching a hoseline to an area near the landing site. This might be good for an emergency at the expected LZ, but it would greatly delay your response to a bad landing that occurs in another location in your response area.

Consider also what the helicopter may crash into (or land on top of) during a bad landing or takeoff. This will help you choose sites for LZs in your town. An LZ with a long approach or landing corridor is always a good choice. If the aircraft has a problem while on its final approach, it would be better to have it crash in an empty field as opposed to an apartment complex, a housing area, or an elementary school.

You should have a standard protocol for requesting helicopters; it should include flight/weather conditions under which this action would be acceptable. LACoFD helicopters, for example, follow minimum flight standards of a 500-foot cloud ceiling from the ground and three-mile visibility.

LANDING ZONE CRITERIA

The following tasks must be accomplished during the selection, setup, and operation of a hastily established landing zone: security, marking, and assignment of members into response crews. Selecting an appropriate helispot, subject to the pilot’s acceptance, is the first critical task. The LACoFD’s Training and Equipment Manual (Volume V, “Air Operations, Helicopter Safety”) stipulates the following:

• The landing area for a medium helicopter should be at least 90 feet in diameter.

• The landing pad should be at least 20 feet × 20 feet.

• The landing pad should be as flat, firm, and level as possible (and free of brush, stumps, posts, large rocks, etc.).

• The tail rotor area should be clear to the ground except for light grass and weeds no taller than three feet.

• The helispot should be clear of people, lightweight materials, debris, poles, and wires.

• For nighttime operations, the landing area should be at least 200 feet in diameter, to provide an extra margin of safety. Possible exceptions (again, based on concurrence with the pilot) include well-lighted streets or intersections, parking lots, and so on.

Security

Security of the landing zone is critical. Establish a perimeter around it so that cars, people, bicyclists, runners, and so on, do not enter the danger area. We usually think of the securing of the LZ as a police function, and it may be if that is your SOP and if the police are on the scene in sufficient numbers. In small towns, a police department often is fully engaged in another event-a serious motor vehicle accident, for example. Traffic control, protecting evidence, reconstructing an accident, victim issues, and other functions require personnel. Your police department may not have enough resources to control the scene and set up or secure the LZ. The fire department often ends up with this responsibility.

Several years ago when air ambulances were just coming into their own, a local police department responded to an automobile accident. At the time, SOPs called for the police to set up the LZ. The police called the air ambulance to the vehicle accident scene and requested mutual-aid police departments to set up the LZ. The neighboring police departments did the best they could, but they did not know about the communication wire strung across the elementary school parking lot being used as the LZ. The pilot saw the wire just in time to prevent a crash. He was less than pleased with the LZ support at the scene. The lesson learned here is to share information about your LZs with mutual-aid units long before you attempt to land an aircraft there in low-light or poor-weather conditions. It will make it safer for everyone. It’s critical to have radio contact (air-to-ground frequency) with the incoming copter. Provide the pilot with wind direction, speed on the ground, and information about any potential hazards on the approach and landing (especially nearby wires and towers).

Marking the LZ

Preplanning your LZs and identifying them with global positioning system (GPS) coordinates make it much easier for the air crew to find you. The corner of Railroad Avenue and State Route 9W is hard to find at night. By providing grid coordinates, the crew can fly to the site using their instruments. Many cell phones now have GPS to make this task much easier.


(9) Traffic cones combined with a hand light can be used to mark the perimeter of landing zones.

When talking to the aircraft crew, use landmarks they can see and with which they are familiar. I was talking a helicopter in one day and advised the pilot that he was about one mile north of my location. When the pilot got on the ground, he told me that the large water tower near the LZ was a good landmark for him while airborne. Think about what the pilot can see easily.

There are several common methods for marking the LZ. The most common is to use a light at each corner and one facing the source of the wind. Markers could be lights, traffic cones, commercially available landing kit lights, or traffic cones on their sides with hand lights inside of them. With the cone’s point toward the LZ, it remains stable in the rotor wash (photo 9).

Lighting

Red warning lights on the rigs are a good indicator for the pilot. However, remember that during nighttime operations, the pilot may be confused by the red lights at the scene and a similar collection of red apparatus lights at the landing zone. As a general rule, leave the red lights on and the white lights-including headlights-off in the landing zone. This helps preserve the air crew’s night vision; they will depart into a very dark sky when they leave your LZ. It is a good idea to preplan with your flight crew because pilots may prefer that all emergency lights at the LZ be turned off. Strobe lights, now liberally applied on our apparatus, may reduce the flight crew’s night vision.

Staffing

Staffing the landing zone is the most critical part of your operation. An engine company is a good standard unit for helispot safety operations, but other units can also be used. One person, the LZ commander, should be in charge of the entire landing zone operation. The communications officer (CO) works with the LZ commander and is another set of eyes and ears for the IC on the LZ. The CO is responsible for the following: communicating with the aircraft in accordance with local protocols; ensuring that the aircraft can find its way to the LZ and describing any hazards to the pilot; communicating with EMS crews, who should have an estimated time of arrival; and providing a patient count and patient status report.

The LZ officer (LZO), the second staff officer, also works for the LZ commander. The LZO is responsible for securing the landing zone and marking it appropriately. This may involve positioning members around the LZ to keep it clear of bystanders and vehicles. The crash fire rescue (CFR) crews work for the LZO. They go to work when the dreaded “something is wrong” shouts are heard on the LZ.

The CFR crews are divided into teams. The following is one configuration that will help to ensure the most efficient rescue of the air crew and patients during a bad landing:

• Driver-responsible for getting the rig (engine) near the crash site. He must ensure that he has access to the LZ and must develop a quick plan for responding if necessary. This, of course, must be communicated to the crew members and be approved by the CFR officer. Instant access may include cutting locks on fences, taking alternate approaches, or other methods. The plan should consider how fire department members will get to the crash site-running while carrying their tools or riding on the rig, for example. It’s your plan, but remember that there will be very little time to discuss it when the helicopter spins wildly out of control.

• Rescue crew-this crew of two to three firefighters must immediately enter the crash site and attempt to extricate the victims. Because of the lightweight nature of the materials from which the helicopter is made, access usually can be gained with hand tools. Consider adding a few specialty tools, such as a seat belt cutter and a backboard on which to carry victims from the crash scene. Reciprocating saws and other battery-powered rescue tools may also be effective. Hydraulic rescue tools and rescue air bags may be needed for complicated extrications, especially if victims are pinned by overturned copters (or by the engine or transmission).

Consider assigning more personnel to this function if rescue is possible. Based on our experience, four rescuers per victim (nonambulatory) are required.

• Fire crew #1 (at least two firefighters) is responsible for quickly controlling or preventing a fire. The crew should carry portable dry-powder extinguishers, which will quickly knock down fires, including fuel fires.

• Fire crew #2 (at least two firefighters) protects the rescue crews with a foam or water line. This line provides lasting fire suppression capability. During rescue operations, foam is first applied only to cut or support a rescue path for firefighters or air crew members. Since foam quantities are usually limited, protect members and victims first; if sufficient foam is available, then use it to extinguish fires, if present.

CRITICAL PREPLANNING STEPS

Preplanning saves lives during structural responses; it is no different with helicopter emergencies. Following are some key points for a safe and effective response to helo standbys and emergencies:

• Preplan all landing zones. Establish good relationships with flight crews that will be working in your area. They will help refine the requirements for landing zones and possibly recommend the sites they prefer in priority order. This will help develop the confidence of the flight crew when flying the aircraft in and out of your LZs and in the support you are providing. Make a site visit with the air crews expected to land at the site, and provide GPS coordinates. Inspect the LZ annually for any changes or additional hazards such as newly installed communication or cable television lines.

• Preplan your LZs, and share this information with nearby mutual-aid companies that may be setting up LZs for you. Some time ago, the local fire department was occupied at an extrication involving several patients. The police department was also fully committed to the scene, which had potential fatalities, driving while under the influence (DWI) issues, and, of course, traffic control. A mutual-aid police department established the LZ for the medevac helo on a hastily chosen location. Officers could not see the cable TV wire that was recently strung across the otherwise clear school parking lot. The air crew was less than pleased when they finally got safely on the ground.

• Per your SOPs, establish one ground radio contact with the pilot. Use a dedicated frequency to eliminate any potential for confusion or fireground chatter.

• Ensure that officers thoroughly understand their responsibilities. Landing a helicopter in a hastily developed LZ in bad weather or darkness is risky. Fire officers managing the scene must understand their responsibilities and the SOP under which they are operating.

• Ensure accessibility to the LZ. Make sure you have unobstructed and immediate access to the LZ for your apparatus in case of a bad landing. Also, make sure you can get your rig to a bad landing off the LZ.

• Check for debris at each LZ you establish. Rotor wash causes wind speed that can make dangerous missiles out of any loose debris.

• Keep members behind the rig during landings and takeoffs, if possible. Flying rotor parts during a crash can cut a firefighter in half; debris can be equally as dangerous. Use the rig for protection.

• Plan for crashes off the LZ. We tend to focus only on establishing the LZ. A bad landing may take place into the surrounding area, and you will have to first locate the site and then determine how to best access the area and set up operations.

• Assign tools and equipment to members standing by. There will be little time to do this during a crash response.

• Consider how you will get the patient from the ambulance to the helicopter. Most ambulance stretchers will not roll across soft grass or other nonhard surfaces. It will take four to six firefighters to carry a patient. It is best that the LZ have a short distance between the ambulance and the helicopter and have a hard surface.

• Develop your plan, establish it as an SOP, train your members and officers in the plan, and continually improve the plan. Training can be accomplished by using a car hulk to simulate a downed aircraft. Be sure to comply with safety recommendations when using a car hulk and live fire.

• • •

Structural fire departments are being called on to accomplish a wide variety of services. Some of these we can do effectively; others are beyond our capabilities. Establishing hastily developed landing zones and providing crash fire rescue services for helicopter operations are within our capabilities if we adequately preplan and train.

Thanks to the Rockland County (NY) HELP program and USAR Specialist Captain Larry Collins of the Los Angeles County (CA) Fire Department for their assistance with this article.

JERRY KNAPP is a training officer at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York. He is a 33-year veteran firefighter/EMT with the West Haverstraw (NY) Fire Department, has a degree in fire science, was a nationally registered paramedic, and is captain with the Rockland Haz Mat Team. A frequent contributor to Fire Engineering and other journals, he is an FDIC H.O.T. Engine Company instructor and a seminar presenter. He is the emergency management officer for the United States Military Academy at West Point.

CHRISTOPHER FLATLEY is a 16-year veteran of the Fire Department of New York. He is assigned to Ladder 21 on Manhattan’s West Side; previously, he worked in Ladder Company 2 in Midtown. He has an associate’s degree in fire science; is a nationally certified fire instructor I and an instructor at the Rockland County Fire Training Center in Pomona, New York; and has presented at FDIC.

WAYNE SUTHERLAND is a 14-year veteran of the fire service and is an ARFF/EMT certified firefighter with the Piedmont Triad International Airport. In July 2005, he completed his service with the Deep River Volunteer Fire Department, where he was a captain, because of annexation. He is the lead instructor for FDIC H.O.T. Engine Company Operations (Alternative Water Supply). He also is a board member on the Guilford County Fire Training Committee.

No posts to display