Wings Air Rescue exercise tests skills on remote Ripshin Mountain

5/2/2014


Wings Air Rescue crew members Sheilia Thompson
and Nick Collins tend to pilot Michael Miller in the
simulated crash site on top of Ripshin
Mountain. For more photos from the
exercise, contact Teresa Hicks.

ROAN MOUNTAIN, Tenn. – Wings Air Rescue has saved hundreds of lives in our region, but what if a Wings helicopter needed rescuing?

That scenario played out on Thursday in the form of a well-planned, top-secret drill. A Wings helicopter from Greeneville was dispatched to Roan Mountain to help find and treat a supposed missing person, then suddenly dropped off the radar in the rugged area of Ripshin Mountain in Carter County, and rescue teams had to react.

In reality, the helicopter had not crashed but was set down in a remote, predetermined clearing about three miles into the wilderness from the nearest paved road. The missing person search was fabricated for the exercise. Only a handful of people knew about the drill before it started, so the initial reactions were real.

Another Wings aircraft was sent to locate the “downed” helicopter, and Carter County EMS/Rescue was tasked with using coordinates from the second helicopter to locate the first one and then “rescuing” the injured crew using all-terrain vehicles to climb up the mountain via 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.

Planning for the exercise started two years ago. Several months ago, the teams did what’s known as a table-top exercise, when they went through the steps for the drill without actually deploying anyone – instead focusing on the communication process.

On Thursday, it was all acted out in real time.

“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.”

In order to avoid confusion or false responses, the exercise was kept off the main radio channels. The Wings helicopter landed in a clearing on top of Ripshin Mountain at more than 4,400 feet elevation. The crew followed a scenario of unloading their crucial gear as if 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 who served as 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 off the SkyTrac aviation tracking system in the vicinity of Roan Mountain State Park, so they rushed to the scene and began the search. Finding the downed aircraft was not an easy task among thousands of acres of rugged terrain, especially considering Wings serves primarily as an air ambulance and not a search-and-rescue service.

Once they located the missing aircraft and buzzed the mountaintop field, the rescue helicopter radioed coordinates, which were used by Carter County EMS to climb the mountain and find the location. Carter County EMS/Rescue sent two teams totaling eight people to the site. An incident command center was set up down the mountain on Tiger Creek Road to monitor the teams’ progress and keep them on the right path to the crash site.

Treadway and Fritz were evaluators at the landing zone, along with Anthony Roberts, the deputy director of Carter County EMS/Rescue. They monitored the drill and made a list of things that could be done to improve the incident response as well as things that were done well.

“This was known as a PAIP – a Post-Accident Incident Plan,” Treadway said. “There were a lot of moving parts to this. But the exercise went very well.

“The biggest thing is what we do from here, to tie it all together among dispatch, the guys on the ground and the air crew search. We’ll have debriefings and see what we’ve learned.”

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.

It also reinforced the fact that, for any kind of serious search-and-rescue effort, it takes a team effort involving several organizations.

“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.”

“Wings and Med-Trans are very, very good on safety,” said Carter County EMS/Rescue’s Roberts. “That’s one reason we like working with them.”

The team leaders said they considered the exercise a big success. Everything went smoothly, nothing was damaged and no one was hurt, and the lessons learned will help save more lives in the future.

“That’s what this is really all about,” Treadway said.

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